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U.S.: Controversial Production Of Plutonium Pits Restarted

  • Jeremy Bransten

The United States Department of Energy recently announced that it has restarted production of plutonium pits -- a key component in nuclear weapons -- for the first time in 14 years. Critics say the move could trigger a new arms race and contravenes U.S. commitments to de-emphasize reliance on nuclear weapons. Supporters say keeping America's nuclear weapons stockpile in mint condition is the only way to guarantee security.

Prague, 1 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The first question on most people's minds when the U.S. Department of Energy announced it had resumed production of plutonium pits last week was: what is a plutonium pit?

Simply, a plutonium pit is a steel-encased ball of plutonium found in most nuclear weapons that acts as the trigger for nuclear detonation. It is a key component in ensuring that a nuclear bomb explodes on impact. The fact that the United States, after a 14-year moratorium, is restarting production of these pits has reopened debate on the role of America's nuclear arsenal -- and sparked renewed debate between proponents of modernizing the country's nuclear capability and those who would like to see it downsized and eventually eliminated.

U.S. scientist Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, is a leading authority on nuclear issues and an advocate of disarmament. He told RFE/RL that the resumption of plutonium pit production contravenes Article 6 of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which committed the five declared nuclear powers of the time: the Soviet Union, the United States, China, Britain, and France to work for nuclear disarmament.

At a conference in May 2000 to review the treaty, participants renewed that pledge, promising to work for the "total elimination" of their nuclear arsenals. Makhijani said the Department of Energy's announcement violates that pledge and sends a signal to the world that nuclear weapons remain the central component of the U.S. defense strategy.

"I believe it's a very significant and very negative development. Nearly 14 years after the Berlin Wall fell, to restart a nuclear weapons production line is completely the wrong signal to the world. The United States has evidently been on display many times since 1989 -- how powerful it is in non-nuclear forces, how overwhelming it is compared to everybody else -- and if the United States is going to assert that nuclear weapons are essential to its security, which it has done and now it is doing by physically making even more, what are other countries to do and think?" Makhijani said.

The fact that the United States -- despite its overwhelming conventional military strength -- feels the need to modernize its nuclear forces will not be lost on countries like North Korea, said Makhijani, and will prompt them to redouble their own efforts to acquire a nuclear arsenal. The history of proliferation, he said, bears him out.

"Nuclear weapons production has been in a chain of proliferation. The German threat caused the Americans to start during World War II. Then the American threat caused the Soviets to start and also the Chinese to start developing nuclear weapons. The Chinese strongly triggered the pro-nuclear sentiment in India and so on. This kind of policy is really the engine of proliferation. And nuclear proliferation at this time is extremely dangerous because now we have the problem of not only states but also of terrorist groups," Makhijani said.

Bryan Wilkes, spokesman for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of Energy's office tasked with oversight of America's nuclear arsenal, could not disagree more. Wilkes notes that Russia, China, France, and Britain have themselves not halted pit production and rejects any causal link to North Korea's nuclear program.

"That's an absurd argument. Why should the United States be any different than any other nuclear nation? Why should the United States be any different from Russia or China or any of the other nuclear powers. The answer is 'it shouldn't .' The second problem with that line of reasoning is that it's completely faulty, because essentially you're equating the United States with North Korea and the values and the outlook of both nations are both polar opposites," Wilkes said.

Resuming production of plutonium pits, Wilkes said, has nothing to do with a new arms race. It is not about building new weapons, but merely replacing the trigger switches on older weapons, to ensure the safety and reliability of current stocks. Wilkes.

"The best analogy that I can make is with a car. When you replace an engine in a car, you're not building new cars and you're not mass producing cars. What you're simply doing is you're just changing a key part of that car: changing the engine. And that is what we're talking about right now," Wilkes said.

Nevertheless, the Department of Energy's request for funds to build a new facility over the coming years, which will boost plutonium pit production from the current estimated 50 to 80 pits a year, up to 500, has raised eyebrows.

"[Why] the United States needs to build 500 bombs per year is a complete mystery," Makhijani said. "So if really the replacement of aging bombs were the goal, and the announced arsenal size of 2,000 warheads -- which is more or less what has been negotiated in the reductions with Russia -- were the real long-term plan, then a capacity of 50 to 80 [pits] per year would be completely enough, even by the criteria that have been official, because bombs may last 20, 30, 40 years in the arsenal. They don't really need replacement, even according to the bomb promoters, more frequently than that," he said.

Makhijani points to the fact that last year's Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) between the United States and Russia has a 10-year automatic expiration date and until that time, only provides for the storage -- not permanent decommissioning -- of extra nuclear warheads. Makhijani believes that the Department of Energy's restarting of pit production and its long-term plans to mass produce them indicates that the U.S. administration's ultimate intention is to eventually bring old nukes out of storage and put them back on active duty.

Again, at the National Nuclear Security Administration, spokesman Wilkes disagreed, saying plutonium pit production is a necessity -- among other factors for safety reasons. He noted that a new pit production facility is not due to come on-line until the year 2020, by which time most pits in America's stockpile could be in need of replacement. Until that time, low-level pit production must be maintained to ensure continuity.

"Plutonium is very new, scientifically speaking. It's only 50 years old. Nobody knows age decay issues or stability issues related to plutonium and that is another reason to have this capability, whether it's an interim capability until 2020, at Los Alamos. We're talking about just a few plutonium pits -- not many at all -- to maintain our current stockpile. Or on the other hand, if one is discussing a permanent facility to manufacture pits, like all other nuclear nations have, if a problem is discovered with plutonium, specifically an age decay issue, or a stability issue, and suddenly many of our weapons have to have their plutonium replaced, we're going to need the capability to do it."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in his foreword to the United States' 2002 Nuclear Posture Review -- a strategic document outlining America's defense strategy for the next decade -- wrote that America's nuclear infrastructure had "atrophied."

He emphasized the importance of revitalizing it "to increase confidence in the deployed forces, eliminate unneeded weapons, and mitigate the risks of technological surprise." Rumsfeld concluded by saying that maintaining America's "ability to respond to large strategic changes can permit us to reduce our nuclear arsenal and, at the same time, dissuade adversaries from starting a competition in nuclear armaments."