Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will remember how hard it was for Doc to get the plutonium he needed to power his time travelling DeLorean. Today, the US government is also trying to get their hands on a little bit (or a lot) of plutonium – but for nuclear bombs.
The US Department of Energy, through its National Nuclear Security Administration just invited comments on how big the scope should be for an environmental impact statement for making new plutonium pits. PAX submitted comments (PDF) on what the scope would be, but also reiterated that they should just not be making more of these things.
What is a plutonium pit?
These are the grapefruit sized core of nuclear bombs- like the one that devastated Nagasaki about 74 years ago. Plutonium is a highly radioactive substance, and it can remain toxic for around 7,000 generations (140,000 years). To put that in context, it’s about ten times longer than humans are thought to have inhabited North America.
The pit is the core of the nuclear weapon- the massive energy release caused by the chain reaction of splitting plutonium atoms.
The Atomic Heritage site explains how the design of the Nagasaki plutonium bomb came about:
Physicist Seth Neddermeyer at Los Alamos constructed a design for the plutonium bomb that used conventional explosives around a central plutonium mass to quickly squeeze and consolidate the plutonium, increasing the pressure and density of the substance. An increased density allowed the plutonium to reach its critical mass, firing neutrons and allowing the fission chain reaction to proceed. To detonate the bomb, the explosives were ignited, releasing a shock wave that compressed the inner plutonium and led to its explosion.
What does the US want to do?
The US wants to make more plutonium pits. In fact, they want to increase the current production (which takes place at the Los Alamos Laboratory) to make at least 80 new pits a year. That is capacity for 80 new plutonium style nuclear bombs per year. That’s a lot. That’s half the estimated French or British arsenal, per year. One nuclear weapon has tremendous destructive capacity, and putting plans together to make so many more is a signal that a new arms race is upon us.
Don’t they already have some?
At least 15,000 plutonium pits already exist, stored at the Pantex site in Texas. According to Reuters,
There are enough cores there to cause thousands of megatons of nuclear explosions.
It is known that modern pits have reliable lifetimes of a century or more, and there are no legitimate reasons given for why making more would be necessary.
PAX contributed some suggestions on the scope of this environmental impact statement. Including in our remarks that these pits are only for one thing- to facilitate a new nuclear arms race, something that is contrary to both the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Next on this will be whatever Draft Environmental Impact Statement is released by the US government to justify how they will protect people and the environment from these activities. Watchdog groups like Nukewatch New Mexico will be keeping a close eye on this, and so will we.