Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
Regulators Squelching U.S. Nuke Reliability Tests: Ex-Los Alamos Chief
Regulatory activities intended in part to reduce the likelihood of nuclear weapon-related accidents have prevented the Los Alamos National Laboratory from carrying out studies critical to evaluating the reliability of the increasingly old plutonium fuel in U.S. nuclear armaments, a former director of the New Mexico facility told the Albuquerque Journal in comments reported on Tuesday (see GSN, Feb. 16).
Prior to leaving the laboratory's top leadership position in 1997, Siegfried Hecker oversaw the creation of still-unfinished plans for studying how the fissile material changes over time.
“We have never done enough of those experiments that would make me feel more comfortable with plutonium lifetimes in pits," Hecker, now a Stanford University academic, said in reference to the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons.
"As far as I’m concerned, we still haven’t demonstrated that these pits can last 50, 60, 80 or 100 years as some people claim,” he said, adding the National Research Council and other groups have attested in independent assessments to the crucial nature of such experimentation.
Hecker attributed delays in the plutonium studies to risk-reduction rules piled onto laboratory workers by lawmakers, the semiautonomous Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the Energy Department, the National Nuclear Security Administration and offices within the Los Alamos laboratory.
“By the time you add all those up -- six, seven, eight layers -- the poor person that’s supposed to do work in a glove box, for example, is so handcuffed that he can’t get anything done,” Hecker said, referring to documentation required to conduct experiments using the laboratory's confined spaces for handling plutonium.
Such regulations significantly slowed the laboratory's steps to begin producing fissile bomb components following the 1989 closure of the Rocky Flats production facility in Colorado, according to the former official. The New Mexico complex ultimately built its initial plutonium explosive parts after 11 years.
Separately, a high-level laboratory official has said the nation's potential to rapidly assemble new nuclear weapons would assume greater importance if the nation continues to shrink its atomic arsenal.
“If the United States is to rely upon [nuclear stockpile] reconstitution as a form of deterrence, the agility of the complex clearly must be improved," the official said in an report.
Hecker earlier this year told legislators he had traveled to plutonium sites in China, France, India, Russia and the United Kingdom. “None of these countries tie the hands of their scientists and engineers as dramatically as we do with our risk-averse regulatory system,” he said in a prepared statement (John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal, July 17).
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