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Web posted Friday, April 19, 2002
5:02 a.m. CT

Plutonium production delays cited

From staff and wire reports

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico might be lagging in its effort to build plutonium pits, which fuel nuclear weapons, a federal report says.

The lab is behind schedule in about half the things it needs to do to make the grapefruit-sized metal balls, says the report prepared by the Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General.

The report, released this week, cites bad management and planning that relied on a problematic computer program.

Progress has been made since the report was prepared, said Everet Beckner, the DOE's deputy administrator for defense programs.

The lab is now only behind in 14 of the 40 manufacturing processes need to make the pits, he said.

The United States has not built new, weapons-grade pits in more than 10 years. The DOE made the Los Alamos lab responsible for making new pits seven years ago.

The possibility of delays has not caused any problems with the work schedule at Pantex, said Brenda Finley, DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration spokeswoman.

Through Finley's office, Del Kellogg, leader of the production operations team said, "At this point, we don't foresee any impact at the plant."

The lab has made pits, but they have not been certified, or guaranteed to work as good as the old ones.

Only certified pits can be placed in nuclear weapons. A pit is squeezed by high explosives. The pit then explodes in a fusion blast.

The report says it will cost $1.7 billion to prepare the first pit.

Chris Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council questioned how the lab had failed to make a certified pit, especially given how much money the lab has spent.

"I think it's ridiculous," he said. "You spend a billion dollars over a decade and you say you can't certify a pit. You're either incompetent or you're lying."

The Associated Press and Amarillo Globe-News Business Editor Greg Rohloff contributed to this report.

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