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Strategic Command Chief: Outlines of Plutonium Plan Taking Form

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, shown in 2000. The head of U.S. Strategic Command on Wednesday said a new plan is developing on providing plutonium cores for nuclear warheads amid a five-year delay in construction of a key research facility at the New Mexico facility (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf). The Los Alamos National Laboratory, shown in 2000. The head of U.S. Strategic Command on Wednesday said a new plan is developing on providing plutonium cores for nuclear warheads amid a five-year delay in construction of a key research facility at the New Mexico facility (AP Photo/Jake Schoellkopf).

OMAHA, Neb. -- The outlines of a revamped strategy for supplying the nation’s military with plutonium cores for nuclear warheads are taking shape, according to the top officer at U.S. Strategic Command (see GSN, June 5).

“I do think that we are beginning to close [in] on a way ahead here that will [give us] sufficient interim capability while we look to get the long-term solution back on track,” Gen. Robert Kehler, who commands the military organization charged with overseeing any combat use of atomic arms, said during a Wednesday press conference.

The 37-year Air Force veteran was referring to Obama administration plans to impose a five-year delay, for budget-cutting reasons, on construction of a $6 billion plutonium research facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Until a Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement nuclear site is completed, the nation’s atomic weapons leaders must identify workarounds to meet Kehler’s annual requirement for the warhead cores, known as “pits.”

The new site would help to ensure that new and existing nuclear-weapon pits would function, if needed, despite a moratorium since the early 1990s on underground explosive testing.

The administration announced in February that it planned to save $1.8 billion over the next five years, beginning in fiscal 2013, in taking the half-decade pause in construction work on the CMRR facility (see GSN, Feb. 14). Earlier plans anticipated that the new plutonium research and storage plant could be built by 2024.

The administration is also reviewing whether it would still need a long-anticipated production capacity of 50 to 80 nuclear pits each year -- samples of which would have to pass through the CMRR facility for analysis -- or if instead future reductions in the size of the nuclear arsenal might decrease the scale of facilities needed. Los Alamos today produces fewer than 10 pits annually, laboratory spokesman Kevin Roark has said.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 27, Kehler said he would ‘‘be concerned until someone presents a [plutonium processing] plan that we can look at and be comfortable with and understand that it’s being supported.’’

On Wednesday, meeting with reporters on the sidelines of a conference here on nuclear deterrence, the commander said he was now confident that his interim needs for warheads could be met in the years leading up to the replacement facility’s construction.

“I don’t know what form that will finally take,” said Kehler, noting he had taken part in some “very good discussions” regarding the way forward. “It’s still under discussion.”

The Energy Department -- whose semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration oversees the atomic arms complex day to day -- is collaborating with the Defense Department to study the matter. An interagency team is expected to report out in late summer or early fall.

The issue has proved highly contentious on Capitol Hill, where some Republican lawmakers have charged that the administration has given the military’s nuclear warhead requirements short shrift. They have cited Kehler’s warnings and those from a national laboratory leader as evidence that the CMRR delay would be a mistake (see GSN, June 8).

“Without CMRR, there is no identified path to meet the nation’s requirement of 50 to 80 pits per year,” Los Alamos laboratory Director Charles McMillan told his staff in a Feb. 14 letter. “Assuming further investments in [Los Alamos] facilities, we are confident we can deliver -- but only a portion of that requirement.”

On Wednesday Kehler said until a new working blueprint is complete, there could be some risk of dropping under the level of plutonium pits he sees as necessary in coming years.

“I am still concerned, because we still don’t have a plan that closes” all gaps in capacity for storage, research and production during the CMRR nuclear facility construction delay, the four-star general said.

However, the five-year “slip that was put in for the plutonium piece” of the U.S. nuclear-weapon infrastructure modernization plan “I think is manageable,” Kehler said. “There is increased risk doing it this way. But the more we discuss this, the more we learn, the more we comfortable I think we can get with an interim solution.”

In what could be an indication of how the existing nuclear complex might accommodate the military’s annual requirement for fresh pits, Kehler said not all of the 50-to-80-pit annual requirement must be brand new. Some of the need could be filled by warhead cores that have been removed from excess weapons, refurbished and returned into the active or reserve warhead arsenal.

“We don’t differentiate at all” between new versus reused pits, he told reporters.

“What STRATCOM says to the NNSA is you need to provide for us is the weapons we need, when we need them,” said Kehler, referring to Strategic Command and the National Nuclear Security Administration. “And then we rely on NNSA to come back with a plan to fit our need.

“It doesn’t matter to us up front how they go about that, and especially during the study phases that we are in today,” he added. “They are looking at a number of different alternatives to meet the need. And I believe that there are some viable alternatives there.”

Kehler said it could take “another couple of years” to sort out the technical details of solutions embraced in the next few months.

The strategic commander said he continues to support the president’s nuclear infrastructure budget request for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, but “the enterprise is still in bad shape” in “a couple of places,” namely in uranium processing and plutonium research. Investment in a new Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., though, “is on track,” he said.

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