Albuquerque Journal
Saturday, January 8, 2005

LANL May Lose Task to Sandia

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer

The federal government may abandon a plan to make hundreds of tiny nuclear weapon parts at Los Alamos, moving the work to Sandia National Laboratories instead.

After spending years preparing for the work at Los Alamos, the National Nuclear Security Administration is considering combining the job with similar work already being done at Sandia, said NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes.

"It makes sense to consolidate wherever possible," Wilkes said.

Spokesmen for both labs declined comment, referring all questions to Wilkes.

The work involves loading radioactive tritium into neutron targets, tiny devices used to help jump-start a nuclear weapon's blast.

Once loaded with tritium, the target is put in a larger device called a neutron generator before the whole thing is installed in a nuclear weapon.

The neutron generators are built at Sandia, and NNSA officials think it might make more sense for Sandia to do the target loading, too.

NNSA staff is beginning a formal environmental study of the move, a legal requirement before any final decision can be made.

"NNSA is studying the possibility of transferring the neutron tube target loading mission to Sandia from Los Alamos, but only studying the possibility," Wilkes said.

The target tube loading is one of the orphan nuclear weapons production jobs set adrift when a number of U.S. nuclear weapons factories were closed after the Cold War.

Los Alamos began doing the work in temporary quarters in an old tritium laboratory built in the 1960s.

Since at least 1995, Los Alamos has planned to move the work to the more modern Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility, built in the 1980s.

Wilkes would not say how much has been spent at Los Alamos preparing the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility.

The possible move of the tritium work to Sandia comes as the Department of Energy is in the midst of a bidding competition to see who will run Los Alamos in the future.

As such, the move is a blow to the University of California, the lab's current manager, said Jay Coghlan, head of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, an activist group.

"I think it's a slap in the face of both UC and Los Alamos," Coghlan said.

While a decision is being made, the work will temporarily remain in the 40-year-old Tritium Science and Fabrication Facility at Los Alamos.

Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal