The Trump administration wants to move the bulk of America’s future production of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons away from a historic but problem-plagued national laboratory in New Mexico to a sprawling federal site in South Carolina.
The decision, announced late on May 10 in a joint, written announcement by senior Energy and Defense Department officials in Washington, would keep a bit more than a third of the nation’s anticipated future plutonium core production at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the first U.S. nuclear bomb.
But it would relegate the lab – which has struggled to overcome a series of safety problems that forced it to halt virtually all its plutonium production for the last four years -- to a considerably smaller role than it has long anticipated. The problems were disclosed by the Center of Public Integrity in 2017, after which the director of Los Alamos announced his retirement.
Under the new plan, Los Alamos would be less a bomb factory and more a research and development center for nuclear weapons, several experts said. That would evidently mean the loss of billions of dollars’ worth of planned new construction at the New Mexico site, which was once expected to bring Los Alamos’s plutonium manufacturing capacity from zero to 80 cores per year by 2030.
The Trump administration’s decision to shift the annual production of 50 of those cores – also known as pits -- to the Energy Department’s Savannah River nuclear site, located near Aiken, S.C., was designed in part to have two such sites active at the same time, instead of just one. That would avoid a future hobbling of all nuclear weapons production if Los Alamos experienced major safety problems again.
But it would shift much of the highly sensitive and inherently dangerous work to a site that has also experienced a series of serious safety problems, all documented in internal government reports examined by the Center for Public Integrity. A government report in March, for example, said that some top managers at the Savannah River site were still alarmingly inattentive to safety, and were not heeding the advice of their safety experts despite a series of warnings and a special federal oversight arrangement provoked by a dangerous incident in 2015.
The decision to shift future work to Savannah River had another motive, however – a political and financial one. It is meant to finally put a stake into the heart of another immensely costly project there, which the pit production would replace.