ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A top nuclear security official says the U.S. must move ahead with plans to ramp up production of key components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus.
Federal officials have set a deadline of 2030 for increased production of the plutonium cores used in nuclear weapons. The work will be split between Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At stake are jobs and billions of federal dollars to upgrade buildings or construct new factories.
National Nuclear Security Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty said in recent letter to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, that her agency has worked with the contractor that manages Los Alamos on precautions to protect employees from the virus while moving ahead with defense work.
“The plutonium pit production mission is one of our highest national security priorities and is being done in accordance with congressional direction,” she wrote. “We must press forward with this project in order to meet Department of Defense deliverables.”
Gordon-Hagerty didn’t specify what steps were taken to safeguard workers. Los Alamos director Thom Mason has said more than 85% of the laboratory’s workforce is working from home and measures “following CDC guidelines" are in place for those doing national security work and protecting the lab.
Watchdog groups have called for a more in-depth look at the plutonium core project at Los Alamos, but the National Nuclear Security Administration rejected those efforts earlier this year. The agency opted to prepare a supplemental analysis of an environmental review done for Los Alamos more than a decade ago. Critics argue that ramping up production at the lab goes beyond those initial plans and should be reexamined.
The agency is doing a separate review for Savannah River. A virtual public meeting on that part of the project was held last week and people can give input on it until May 18.
Gordon-Hagerty denied a request by New Mexico’s congressional delegation to give the public more time to weigh in on the Los Alamos project. People can comment until Saturday. Lawmakers had asked on behalf of dozens of groups for an extension until at least June 19.
“The NNSA is essentially telling the public to get lost during this epidemic,” said Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a watchdog group.
He said people should use the public comment opportunities to demand the government spend money on masks, ventilators and other needs related to the pandemic rather than on nuclear weapons.
Officials for years have pushed for plutonium core production to resume, saying the U.S. needs to ensure the stability and reliance of its nuclear arsenal.
The National Nuclear Security Administration has said most of the cores in the stockpile were produced in the 1970s and 1980s.