NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby Offers Frank Answers On LANL Plutonium Pit Production And More During Hybrid Town Hall Meeting In Santa Fe

DOE-EM Senior Advisor William ‘Ike’ White, DOE NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby, center, and Santa Fe County Commission Chair Anna Hansen following Tuesday’s town hall meeting in Santa Fe. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com

A large crowd gathered at Santa Fe Convention Center Tuesday evening listens to Pueblo de San Ildefonso Elder Kathy Wan Povi Sanchez address Department of Energy officials. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com


It was described by some as a somewhat momentous occasion last Tuesday evening (April 4) when Jill Hruby and William “Ike” White joined Santa Fe County Commission Chair Anna Hansen on the dais for a hybrid town hall meeting at the Santa Fe Convention Center, which was attended by some 250 people in person and another 200 online.

Hruby is the Department of Energy’s Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). White is the Senior Advisor for the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM).The two listened to comments and answered questions for two hours from groups opposed to plutonium pit production, transportation of nuclear materials/waste along SR 285 through Santa Fe, concerned about the permit renewal request for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and more. The conversation remained civil throughout.

In her introductory remarks, Hruby noted that NNSA has a mission designing the nuclear propulsion system for the U.S. Nuclear Navy for both submarines and ships. The budget for that mission is some $20 billion and it employs 70,000 people.

“We live in a dynamic global environment and views associated with the work that we do have not been so up front and center since the Cuban missile crisis. Russia, China, North Korea and Iran have increased their nuclear arsenals and materials. Their narratives and actions combined have led to less global predictability and they’re all vocal about their animosity to the United States,” Hruby said. “At the same time the Biden administration has articulated in its Nuclear Posture Review a commitment to be a responsible nuclear power, to preventing an arms race, to imagining a world without nuclear weapons.”

She said admittedly there’s not a single viewpoint within the military and Congress and the administration on these issues and there is a lot of very active debate around the country.

“That said, today we have a much smaller arsenal than during the Cold War and the weapons we have in the stockpile are mostly well past their design lifetimes. We made incredible strides over the last 30 years in maintaining what we have, but our stockpile of nuclear weapons as they exist today won’t last forever and neither will the plutonium inside of them,” Hruby said. “We know as plutonium pits age, they decay and they change their performance and for that reason for continued safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile, we are reestablishing the ability to make plutonium pits.”

Since the manufacture of plutonium pits at Rocky Flats in Colorado stopped in the early 1990s, she said Los Alamos National Laboratory has been the only facility in the United States capable of producing pits. However to produce an adequate number of pits going forward and to sustain plutonium science, NNSA is committed to a two-site plutonium production strategy to retain LANL as the Plutonium Center of Excellence.

“Pit production will be done at both Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At full capacity we expect Los Alamos to produce 30 pits per year and Savannah River to produce at least 50 pits per year. We have and are continuing to invest in refurbishment and upgrading of the facilities here in New Mexico, by procuring new equipment, constructing new facilities, improving safety and hiring additional personnel,” Hruby said. “The health and safety of our workforce and the surrounding community is paramount both during the refurbishment and once we reach full production capacity.”

She said NNSA, EM and their contract partners are dedicated to minimizing Los Alamos’s environmental footprint by responsible cleanup of the site and providing effective long-term stewardship.

“We are committed as we rebuild a nuclear enterprise, which we’ve been asked to do, to do this in a very responsible manner and to not make the mistakes that we made during the Manhattan Project in the first round. We get asked all the time to go faster because of the world conditions and we will go as fast as we can but we are committed to environmental safety and stewardship,” Hruby said.

Mr. White’s introductory comments and responses to questions on the EM program are included in a separate story at https://losalamosreporter.com/2023/04/11/doe-em-senior-advisor-william-ike-white-fields-questions-on-lanl-cleanup-wipp-and-more-at-santa-fe-town-hall/

Archbishop John C. Wester was the first to make a statement to Hruby and White, which is published separately in its entirety at https://losalamosreporter.com/2023/04/10/archbishop-john-c-wester-help-us-pull-back-from-the-brink/

In response to Archbishop Wester’s statement, Hruby noted that President Biden did reconfirm that a nuclear war could never be won and should never be fought and that she wanted to address some of the concerns raised in his statement.

“We have no plans to test weapons. We have no plans to do underground testing, nuclear explosive testing….We are doing work at Nevada, so I think that can be confusing but that work is aimed at subcritical nuclear testing so that we can make sure our stockpile is safe and secure and effective,” she said. “And that’s the essence of deterrence. If we don’t build new pits, deterrence won’t work. It is true that means we have nuclear weapons; that is a very complicated discussion of deterrence.”

Hruby said NNSA has increased the amount of money it spends on verification technologies. She noted that a project that began last year and continues this year called the Arms Control Advancement Initiative will continue again if the budget request is approved.

“We are working around the U.S and we are working with our international partners to develop verification technologies some of which are associated with imagining a world without nuclear and some that are associated with a test treaty with Russia and/or China,” Hruby said, saying to Archbishop Wester that while she knows his vision is clear, she wanted to make these comments about “where NNSA is today so that it’s understood and not misunderstood”.

Nuke Watch New Mexico Executive Director Jay Coghlan told Hruby it strikes him that NNSA has been avoiding an update pit life study. He mentioned a 2005 Jason Study that concluded that plutonium pits last at least 100 years.

“In 2019, the Jasons came out with a truncated report – the letter report – in which they said they don’t have time to do a full life study again but they made specific recommendations or stated criteria for a new study. Since that time nothing has happened despite Congressional requirements for a pit aging study,” Coghlan said.

He asked when there will be another pit life study, saying it’s rather crucial to know how pits perform over time and whether 10s of millions need to be invested.

Coghlan referred to a Government Accounting Office Report issued earlier this year noting that NNSA has no credible cost estimates for pit production.

“They just don’t exist. There was one in 2018 for $43 billion but there’s been increasing costs so it’s probably more than $60 billion over 30 years,’ he said.  He asked when NNSA will provide credible cost estimates for pit production to Congress and the public.

Coghlan asked about changes in pit design; why there are new designs and design changes in the pipeline.

“Why not stick to the tested legacy of pit designs? Why are future pits going to be modified and could this create pressure for the U.S, to return to testing? he asked.

With respect to the lifetime of pits, Hruby responded that what initiated the 2019 Jason letter was a study done by the Defense Programs Advisory Committee, an NNSA advisory committee on lifetimes that said they couldn’t guarantee 100 years. She said it couldn’t back up the original Jasons study so the Jasons looked at it again and that’s what precipitated the 2019 study.

“We’re studying (pit) life all the time and actually we had this ignition event at (the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). Between NIF and the Nevada programs and other programs that we have, we’re trying to get higher and higher fidelity on plutonium so that we can nail down pit lifetime as much as possible. But that science is still ongoing. We’re still investing money to try to understand that. We have not given up on understanding it. We have not made a statement that every weapon needs a new pit. We just know that we don’t feel comfortable putting old pits in for 30 more years until we have completed but we continue those studies,” Hruby said.

She noted that she is quite familiar with the GAO report Coghlan mentioned.

“You’re also right that we have had trouble meeting schedules and costs for our major nuclear facility construction projects. These are one of-a-kind projects that haven’t been done in many decades and we’re trying to do them differently than before. We had issued issues associated with COVID; now we have issues associated with supply chain and worker shortages,” Hruby said. There’s an awful lot of investment being made in infrastructure in the U.S. and we’re finding we have craft worker shortages.”

She noted that NNSA is still in the design phase for the Savannah River Facility which is one of the reasons it is so hard to nail down the cost.

“But we continue to try to refine cost estimates and we’re certainly trying to be very transparent about them. We expect that we’ll be finished with the design for the Savannah River facility in FY2024 in which case we’ll be able to provide our best full cost estimate at that time,” Hruby said.

In terms of new designs Coghlan mentioned, Hruby said the designs are going to be tested designs.

“The pit designs are not new. They’re going to be tested pits. We are doing other new things in the weapon but again, I just want to scream from the mountain tops – we do not want to test. Our whole program is aimed around never having to do another nuclear explosive test and at the same time to be very confident about our weapons. Things could happen. There could be some scientific surprise that we don’t anticipate today, but we’re doing everything that we can do intellectually to think about those things to make sure that we don’t have to test again,” she said.

Hruby said DOE is taking the initiative to do a Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement at LANL. “We directed that it get started. It is a very important step that we’ve taken in this administration so there will be public hearings associated with it – we expect those to start probably this fall. That is meant to be an open and transparent process that you will be able to participate in this year,” she said.

Greg Mello, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Study Group addressed Hruby for some time before posing questions. He told her she is tasked with implementing policies that were made mostly by others. \

“You have some power, a lot of power, a lot of knowledge and experience and people will listen to you because of that. So I’m hoping that you will come away from this evening with just the possibility that maybe things could be thought about a little bit differently and that’s my biggest overall message to you,” Mello said.

He voiced concern about “the aggressiveness of our own country most of all”.

“It was a mistake on the part of the Trump administration and your predecessor to assign a Reliable Pit Mission to LANL. Call it industrial, call it a factory, call it the Reliable Pit Mission. In June 2017 there was a finding that PF4. LANL’s main plutonium facility should not be used as an enduring pit production facility. By 2018, that was reversed in part because the bosses of some of the Congressional staff who are here in this room threw a hissy fit that New Mexico wasn’t going to get that money. From where we sit and having watched this for a long time, seeing four or so failures already at Los Alamos, this strikes us as an overtly political and indeed corrupt decision,” Mello said.

He told Hruby that senior people he talks to “say that this is not going to work out well for you, that this rushing this ramping up”.

“I know that these schedules are things that you’ve inherited but somebody has to say, ‘Slow down”. We don’t want to start tripping forward, even if you really believe in nuclear deterrence and getting all of these weapons going, you don’t want to be shutting down your facilities as has happened here for years,” Mello said.

He noted that the Study Group disagrees about the need to grow the workforce.

“This creates a policy ratchet which feeds into our pork barrel system so that nobody wants to lay off people that they just hired. We don’t need 70,000 workers making nuclear weapons in this country,” Mello said.

He said he knows that Congress is not going to allow all pit production to come to an end.

“But we don’t need it now. We don’t need it for the Sentinel system and we don’t need it at Los Alamos. You, as you know, are going to run into embedded safety issues at Los Alamos… and those are going to turn into reliability issues. It happens to every administrator, every Lab director that we have seen. The optimism that contractors bring to the table ends up in tears,” he said.

Mello’s first question for Hruby was if she will negotiate with the Russians. He also asked her if she will work on having NNSA become more transparent.

“Will you work with us to become more transparent so that the community can know what the heck is going on and you can get the kind of feedback that is the hallmark of preventing disaster with megaprojects that you administer,” Mello asked.

He also asked about a new low-level nuclear waste disposal site to support pit production that is mentioned in the LANL agenda.

His third question related the LANL Campus Master Plan.

“It says that PF4 will need to be replaced or augmented within the 30-year planning period. What does it mean? Where would that replacement facility be? What sort of augmentation of PF4 – the main plutonium facility – does NSA and LANL have in mind?” Mello asked. Hruby responded that she would get back to Mello on the nuclear waste disposal site and the LANL Campus Plan questions.

Hruby said she wanted to say a little about the “hurry” issue.

“ I agree that we have to do things right and if we go too fast we’ll have problems and I say it to Congress all the time and I get beaten around the neck and shoulders; if you watch my testimony you’ll see it. Going too slow costs us so much money so I think there’s a spot in between where we can have efficient processes and be safe and environmentally conscious and that’s the sweet spot I’m trying to find and I don’t know whether I will but it’s worth it to me so I’m sticking my neck out on that one just so you understand that’s how I think about it,” she said.

As for meeting with Russia, Hruby noted that she spent the few years between her time at Sandia and her time in current position meeting with Russia literally every week virtually and that she actually made quite a few trips there.

“I would like nothing more than to engage in a dialog with Russia. The State Department has to open that door; we’re there to support them and we do talk about that. I’m personally sanctioned by Russia so I don’t think I’m going to be going there anytime soon. I do think it’s very, very important that we meet with Russia and with China and I think everybody that works with me knows that,” she said.

Hruby noted that her leadership team is working to make NNSA more transparent.

“In the first few months we released a number of nuclear weapons, which hadn’t been done in the Trump administration and actually hadn’t been done for quite a long time. This meeting and other things that we do, I hope show more transparency. It is certainly our intent,” she said. “Nuclear deterrence doesn’t work without everybody engaged. It isn’t a government decision; it’s a public decision. So I think that we have to engage the public so that’s why Ike (White) and I are here,” she said.

Hruby also answered questions about the amount of transportation involved in the Surplus Plutonium Disposal Project which involves bringing plutonium too LANL for preparation and then to Savannah River for dilution and back to WIPP for disposal.

“We’re taking a close look at that whole program. The reason for all this shipping is because these are the only facilities we have to do each one of these processes we’re trying to do to get rid of the surplus plutonium. Out objective is to get rid of the surplus plutonium so that it can never be used again. The cost we have to pay for that program right now unless we build an entirely new facility is all the shipment,” Hruby said.

Attendees carry protest signs at the town hall Tuesday evening with Department of Energy officials. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com

Greg and Trish Mello from the Los Alamos Study Group at Tuesday’s town hall meeting in Santa Fe. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com