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Los Alamos and Labs

Brooks_Linton_061005.jpgSecurity at the nation’s nuclear weapons complex has been comically awful for years. But despite meth dealers caught with classified info, despite the barely-armed guards patrolling the Livermore Lab, despite the short-cut security drills at Oak Ridge, and despite the faked investigations at Sandia — not to mention that pesky reporter who waltzed right into Los Alamos — the guy supposedly in charge of security has somehow been able to keep his job.
Until now. Linton Brooks, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, has been asked to step down by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. Brooks is “to submit his resignation… this month,” the AP says.
The nuclear watchdogs over at the Project on Government Oversight are understandably psyched. They’ve been calling for Brooks’ resignation since 2004. “This is an opportunity for the National Nuclear Security Administration to finally live up to its name,” said POGO chief Danielle Brian said in a statement.
The NNSA was created back in 2000, after the Wen Ho Lee scandal and other security lapses hit Los Alamos. Maybe the group can finally start doing its job, under a new director. See ya later, Linton. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
(Big ups: Raw Story)

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Why should we bother putting radiological detectors in the ports when it’s easier to get the stuff within the United States? The AP has this article on a drug raid at a New Mexico trailer park, which turned up classified documents from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
DirtyBomb.jpg

Local police found the documents while arresting a man suspected of domestic violence and dealing methamphetamine from his mobile home, said Sgt. Chuck Ney of the Los Alamos, N.M., Municipal Police Department. The documents were discovered during a search of the man’s records for evidence of his drug business, Ney said.
Police alerted the FBI to the secret documents, which agents traced back to a woman linked to the drug dealer, officials said. The woman is a contract employee at Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to an FBI official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case.
The official would not describe the documents except to say that they appeared to contain classified material and were stored on a computer file.

While the FBI won’t comment, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has some insights.

According to unconfirmed sources, the information was classified as Secret Restricted Data which means it would involve nuclear weapons data and may have concerned detection of underground nuclear weapons testing. Also unconfirmed, the person in possession of the information worked either in Technical Area 55 where all of the Labs plutonium is stored or in the X Division which handles nuclear weapons design data for a maintenance subcontractor of the Lab.

POGO also notes six previous security incidents at LANL since 9/11. No wonder that many of the DHS exercises feature dirty bomb scenarios — they must be worried about domestic terrorists getting too much National Lab material…
Jason Sigger, crossposted at Armchair Generalist
UPDATED 10:20 AM: It should be noted that this isn’t Los Alamos’ first drug-related incident. Back in 2004, local authorities evicted a man who had lived for years in a cave on lab property. from a cave on Los Alamos National Laboratory land where they say he apparently lived for years with the comforts of home a wood-burning stove, solar panels connected to car batteries for electricity and a satellite radio. Ten marijuana plants were found outside the cave, and the fellow inside was charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.
UPDATED 4:15 PM: Whatever you do, be sure to check in regularly at the POGO blog, where they’ve got all kinds of fun rumors floating in. Police docs, too.
UPDATED 10–26: J. here — let me clarify that I believe the combination of classified LANL documents and potential theft of radioactive isotopes from domestic sources (universities, medical labs) is what ought to get people excited about this incident. Obviously we don’t know what’s in the documents that makes them classified, and I am not suggesting that LANL might be the source of loose plutonium material. But unless LANL tightens up their security procedures and trains/screens its employees and contract support better, its leadership ought to be on notice.

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Welcome to the final post in my series on the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program and the future of U.S. nuclear stockpile stewardship. In this post, I’ll review where RRW stands today, and touch briefly on some of the political dimensions of the debate over the program.
There’s a lot of material on this program from the government, from outside experts and from policy advocates of all orientations that I won’t be able to cover, so to those interested in reading more, I recommend checking out CDI’s guide to government documents on RRW, as well as articles on the program at the Arms Control Association website and over at Arms Control Wonk.
w76.jpgIn May 2005, the two nuclear design labs, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, began an 18-month RRW Feasibility Study, as mandated in the fiscal year 2006 Defense Authorization Act. The study consisted of a design competition between the two labs (both with help from Sandia) to produce plans for the first RRW warhead, a replacement for the W76 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead.
The preliminary designs were completed and submitted in March, and underwent peer review in the labs in May. Currently, the teams are back at the drawing boards, incorporating suggestions from the peer reviews and from the Project Officers Group, the representatives of the nuclear stockpile’s Department of Defense “customers.” By November, NNSA is expected to pick a winning design.
As reported in Defense Tech last week, however, RRW is well on its way to expanding beyond a single warhead design. It has been clear for some time that one RRW design would not be enough to replace all nine warhead models currently in the stockpile. Still, many RRW observers were disappointed and concerned to hear that the Senate is planning to commission a design competition for the next RRW warhead and to allocate $62 million for RRW in 2007 more than double the departments $27 million request, and the programs $25 million budget for 2006 before the first feasibility study is even completed.
The arguments in favor of RRW have mostly been described in previous posts: redesigning the stockpile to increase performance margins would, if possible, help put to rest concerns about the effect of modified manufacturing practices on warhead performance, and would provide work for the nuclear weapons complex.
The arguments against RRW, meanwhile, take issue with both the programs desirability and its feasibility.
The first argument against the program is that, according to the programs opponents, there is no need to change the current warhead designs. In the example of the pit remanufacturing debate discussed in my last post, this means that the programs opponents believe that the new pits have been proven conclusively to be as reliable as the old pits, and can be incorporated into existing warheads.
(Dr. Jeanloz, by the way, is on the record as an RRW “skeptic,” rather than an outright critic, but several other experts have offered views similar to his as arguments against RRW.)
NTS.jpgThe second main argument against RRW is that a significantly modified warhead design which has not been tested cannot possibly be as reliable as a tested design. Critics who advance this argument point out that independent assessments predating RRW by government advisory bodies such as the JASONs found that “entirely new designs for the nuclear subsystem… would be expected to require nuclear-explosion (underground) testing before being accepted for the enduring stockpile.“
This assessment contradicts the NNSAs assessment that the RRW designs will “be certifiable and producible without nuclear testing” even though the plans call for “redesigning” the warheads’ nuclear subsystems. Nuclear testing is almost universally regarded as a very bad thing the Bush Administration is formally committed to continuing the current testing moratorium, in no small part due to concern that a U.S. test would inevitably lead to Chinese and Russian tests.
Critics who cite this concern point out that even if the nuclear weapons complex ever brought itself to certify a warhead design which had never been tested, U.S. Strategic Command, as the stockpile’s “customer,” would be unlikely to accept such an unproven product.
It is worth noting, by the way, that there are certain modest modifications which can increase warheads’ performance margins to a certain extent without adding uncertainty these changes are not controversial, and are being considered outside of RRW.
Finally, critics point out that the program’s supposed contributions to the goal of “stockpile transformation” are not consistent with each other.
On the one hand, RRW is supposed to lead to long-term cost-savings by producing a stockpile which can be maintained without a complex stockpile stewardship effort. On the other hand, RRW is also supposed to “continuously exercise” the nuclear weapons complex and “enable” the transition to a “responsive infrastructure.“
The two goals are clearly incompatible a good-for-a-century warhead design which met Congress’ goal of reducing the cost and complexity of stockpile maintenance would not meet NNSA’s goal (and Congress’ secondary goal) of keeping the production complex “exercised” for a possible future arms race. (Ryan jokes that to some people, RRW seems to stand for “Reliably Recurring Work.”)
signpost.jpgAs the Congressional Research Service points out, “RRW is a new program with no specific, tangible product yet defined. In deciding how to proceed on RRW, Congress has a number of options available to it.” It is possible that a version of the program will emerge which can satisfy the concerns of all sides of those who worry that the current stockpile stewardship paradigm will lead to a dangerous accumulation of minor changes, and of those who worry that a significant overhaul of warhead designs will destroy, rather than fortify, confidence in the stockpile. Until such a version emerges, though, we can expect to see both confusion and controversy continue to rage.
– Haninah Levine

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In my last post, I discussed the origins of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program (RRW). In this post, I’ll look at one example of a change which is being made in the manufacturing of an essential nuclear component, and at what this change means for the debate over RRW.
The component in question here is the “pit,” the sphere of plutonium which sits at the heart of a thermonuclear warhead’s primary stage.
During the Cold War, pits were made at the Rocky Flats site in Colorado. After Rocky Flats was shut down in 1989, the United States was left without the ability to make new pits for its stockpile.
TA-55.JPGIn 1996, under the leadership of then-director of Los Alamos Siegfried Hecker, the Department of Energy started working on a new pit manufacturing line at Los Alamos Technical Area 55 (TA-55). A decade later, replacement pits are finally starting to roll off the line at TA-55. But a debate has broken out over whether or not those pits are functionally the same as those made at Rocky Flats. As a result, the new pits are still waiting to receive their certification for stockpile use.
At the heart of the debate lies precisely the sort of improved manufacturing technique which I mentioned in the last post. At Rocky Flats, plutonium was shaped into pits by stamping, folding and welding, in whats known as a wrought process. Unfortunately, the wrought process is very infrastructure-intensive, making it good for an industrial-scale facility like Rocky Flats, but less so for a smaller facility like TA-55. The wrought process also creates lots of dangerous plutonium sawdust and shavings, and leaves behind a product with an uneven microscopic texture.
So under Dr. Heckers enthusiastic leadership, TA-55 developed a new technique for making pits. The new pits are made using a cast process that is, molten plutonium (alloyed with some other metals for stability) is poured into pit-shaped molds. The cast process, if done properly, produces a much more uniform product, with less complex equipment and less hazard.
Fast forward ten years.

[Continue reading…]

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Remember Divine Strake a.k.a. “strakes on a plain”? Well, forget it. At least for this year.
Palm Springs KESQ reports that the planned massive explosion at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) has been put off till 2007, at the earliest.
anfo.jpgDivine Strake, recall, was supposed to consist of 700 tons many, many trucks worth of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil emplaced in a shallow pit. The test did not represent an operationally realistic conventional weapon (700 tons!!! of explosives!). Rather, it was intended to simulate the effect of a very low-yield (under 600 ton) nuclear weapon on underground structures.
It is still unclear what the reasons for the delay are. The report from KESQ hints, though, that the issue may involve disputes over Western Shoshone tribal claims to NTS lands, as well as concerns that the explosion might stir up contaminated soil and send radioactive material downwind.
I guess Samuel Jackson got his way this time.…
– Haninah Levine

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In my last post, I talked about the origins of the Stockpile Stewardship and briefly described the three activities which make up stockpile stewardship: stockpile science, stockpile surveillance and warhead life extension. In this post, Id like to discuss the challenge of life extension in greater detail, and show how this challenge has motivated the debate over the Reliable Replacement Warhead program (RRW).
Trinity1.jpgThe goal of the life extension programs (LEP) is to add anywhere from 20 to 30 years onto the (nominal) design lifetimes of the various warhead models in the stockpile (of course, “there is no such thing as a ‘design life’”…). The W87 ICBM warhead became the first warhead to complete its LEP in 2004. The B61 bomb warhead and the W76 SLBM warhead the first warhead slated for replacement under RRW are currently undergoing LEPs, while the W80 cruise-missile warheads LEP was recently canceled by the Nuclear Weapons Council in order to free up funds for RRW.
A life extension program is a sort of 50,000-mile tune-up for a nuclear warhead: limited-lifetime components such as batteries and neutron generators are replaced, along with any other parts “cables, elastomers, valves, pads, foam supports, telemetries, and miscellaneous parts” which may have degraded. Most of these replacements take place outside the warheads nuclear explosives package, however.
While these tasks sound mundane, manufacturing the replacement components is no mean task. Manufacturing lines still exist for some components, but in other cases, lines have been dismantled, suppliers have canceled product lines or gone out of business, and health, safety and environmental regulations have grown stricter.
In these cases, a dilemma arises: should the nuclear production complex go to extreme lengths to recreate the processes needed to remanufacture these components exactly according to the original specifications? Or should they look for ways to make replacement parts that will work just as well, if not better? Since the part has to be replaced anyway, why not make maintenance easier for future generations already?
axe.jpgFor components outside the warheads’ nuclear explosives package, modifying the manufacturing specs is an attractive option, since each new component can be tested exhaustively without underground nuclear testing.
If too many of these minor changes pile up, though, a sort of “Grandfathers axe” effect may kick in: if enough components have been modified and replaced, is the warhead design still the same one that was once tested? For this reason, the guiding philosophy has been “change-control discipline”: make the fewest number of changes possible, and only after proving exhaustively that the changes will not affect warhead characteristics.
For nuclear components, the problem is more serious. While there are ways to investigate how a nuclear component will behave when detonated computer simulations which model the component, dynamic and quasi-static experiments which measure its relevant physical properties, sub-critical experiments which assess its behavior under conditions similar to actual detonation none of these methods has the same doubt-erasing effect as an underground nuclear test.
Any modification to proven designs for nuclear components is therefore bound to cause anxiety as long as underground nuclear testing is forbidden.
Conceptually, this is where the Reliable Replacement Warhead program (RRW) enters the picture.

[Continue reading…]

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If you’ve been following the debate over the Reliable Replacement Warhead program (RRW) and if you haven’t, you should be there’s a good chance that you’re confused over how this program is supposed to go about revolutionizing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. Is RRW a “program to improve the reliability [and] longevity… of existing weapons and their components”? Or is it an “enabler” for a long-term goal of building “new (or replacement) warheads”?
Trinity1.jpgIf you’re confused, you’re not alone. Even the Congressional Research Service dryly observed that “many find RRW to be confusing because it is a new program and descriptions of it have changed.” (The CRS study linked here, by the way, is an absolute must-read for anyone who’s interested in these issues.)
Just last week, Stephen I. Schwartz wrote here on Defense Tech that even as controversy still swirls over the first RRW warhead program, the labs are developing plans for as many as three other RRW warheads and that the end-result of RRW will be not a fixed, long-lived warhead design, but rather “steady-state production of warheads for deployment.
In order to understand what RRW is, and what it might evolve into, its important to take a step back and look at where the U.S. stockpile is today, and how it got there. Over the next few days, Im going to do my best to summarize the history of stockpile stewardship in the U.S. and the debates which led to the creation of RRW (which I wrote about in greater detail here). Then we can get to the meat of what RRW is all about.
Below the jump the Cold War ends, and Stockpile Stewardship is (re)born.

[Continue reading…]

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Mushroom _Cloud_a.jpgTriumphs of common sense can be few and far-between, when you’re dealing with the management of Los Alamos National Lab. So let’s all get out of chairs and do a little victory jig: The U.S. Postal Service has backed out of a plan to help the nuclear weapons mecca fund a 400,000 square-foot “Science Center,” off the books.

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$2.1 billion dollars a year ain’t enough for the brains in charge of Los Alamos National Lab, apparently. So the world’s most important nuclear research center has turned to the U.S. Postal Service, of all places, to fund its new, 400,000 square foot “Science Complex.“
losalamos7_f_clipped.jpgNo, it’s not like the fathers of the atom bomb are now starting some new-fangled effort to zap your mail. Instead, the lab’s managers have been on the hunt for “alternative funding (i.e. third-party methods)” to bankroll its construction projects, documents uncovered by Nuclear Watch of New Mexico reveal.
Funds for the new Science Center weren’t anywhere to be found in the Energy Department’s publicly-available budgets. Nuke Watch had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out that the Energy Department was digging into the U.S. Postal Service’s pockets for two new buildings (one classified, the other not) and a parking lot. “As a justification,” Nuke Watch notes, the department “cited a vaguely worded federal law that authorizes the USPS to furnish property and services to executive branch agencies and vice versa.“
Nuke Watch director Jay Coghlan calls it an “end run around Congress.“
About 10% of Los Alamos’ total workforce will eventually have their offices in the Science Center. That includes the everyone in the “Strategic Research” directorate, including the folks in the “Nuclear Technology Office.” What will they do there? Well, they probably won’t be handling big piles of uranium or plutonium. But they will be tackling “basic and applied scientific research” for “Stockpile Stewardship” — maintenance of the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Now, Los Alamos complains that half of its 8.9 million square feet of facilities are over 30 years old, and half are in “fair, poor, or failing condition.” So the need for new buildings is understandable. But why do if off-the-books? And why the shenanigans with the Post Office?
(Big ups: TH)

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For more than sixty years, the University of California has run Los Alamos National Laboratory on the Energy Department’s behalf. And, despite a seemingly-ceaseless array of financial, security, and safety scandals at the birthplace of the atom bomb — the latest came out just yesterday — the University will hold on to the lab’s $2.2 billion per year management contract. Just goes to show, no amount of incompetence can lose you a fat government deal. The Santa Fe New Mexican has the scoop. LANL: The Real Story has employee reacts.

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