Dawson replies: For comment, we contacted Steve Fetter, chair of the national security subcommittee of the APS Panel on Public Affairs, and Frank von Hippel, POPA’s chair.
Fetter and von Hippel comment: Everet Beckner, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s deputy administrator for defense programs, addresses the issues of manufacturing capacity and pit longevity. The starting point for APS’s Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) discussion paper The Modern Pit Facility 1 was NNSA’s June 2003 draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposed construction of a modern pit facility. 2
The draft EIS specified an MPF with a single-shift production capacity of up to 450 plutonium pits per year and a construction schedule that assumed that the pits currently in the US stockpile will need replacement when they are 45 years old.
The APS panel questioned those assumptions and actively sought appropriate input. NNSA-supported scientists contributed significantly to our analysis and NNSA officials had draft copies of our report in October 2003. The report then underwent the APS approval process, while NNSA revised its analysis. In its February 2004 report to Congress, NNSA lowered the MPF base production capacity to 125 pits per year and raised the assumed pit longevity to 60 years. NNSA changed its capacity and longevity assumptions in a manner consistent with the POPA report.
Beckner also criticizes the POPA recommendation for an outside feasibility study of increasing the capacity of the existing pilot pit production line in the TA-55 facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. We made that recommendation because NNSA has backed away, without adequate explanation, from its own estimate that the single-shift production capacity at TA-55 could be increased to 50–80 pits per year and, with an added wing, to 150 pits per year.
Perhaps the most important contribution of the POPA paper was to point out that, although a production facility is necessary, its requirements need careful reexamination, and the possibility of early production of pits at TA-55 offers considerable leverage. Congress recently suspended fiscal year 2005 funding for MPF site selection and requested a report on production requirements. That wise course of action is recognition that the need for an MFP is not urgent and there is adequate time to explore key science issues relating to pit longevity.