Depending on when the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) can “really” manufacture new plutonium pits, and depending on what “the real capacity” to make pits is, the Navy might be locked out of certain design choices for a planned new warhead, an admiral said Wednesday.
“[I]f we can’t get the requisite number of pits that we need for warheads in the future … we’re going to have a tough discussion about how many pits do we reuse,” Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, the Navy’s director for strategic systems programs, said in a question and answer session Wednesday at sister publication Exchange Monitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit. “And if we reuse those, what does that mean for the design?”
When it comes to pits, Wolfe, who is in charge of the Navy’s nuclear-tipped, Trident II-D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, said the joint Pentagon-Department of Energy Nuclear Weapons Council was “really spending a lot of time and focus to understand, what is the real capacity going to be? When are we really going to get to that capacity?”
This decade, the NNSA will refurbishing both of the Navy’s two warheads, the W76 and the W88. After that, the service and the agency will start work on the W93. The Navy has not said if W93, a not-quite-clean-sheet design to be based on a nuclear-explosive package tested at full yield before the U.S. halted such tests, will need new pits.
Although they have acknowledged for about a year that the larger of two planned pit plants will not come online 2030 as once hoped — throwing into question the civilian agency’s ability to meet a longstanding military requirement for new nuke cores — senior NNSA officials said here that the real timeline for new pits is the same as it has been for years: at least 30 pits annually by fiscal year 2026.
“The real goal we can’t lose sight of is 30 pits a year in 2026,” Charles Verdon, the NNSA’s deputy administrator for defense programs, said in response to questions from the Exchange Monitor Tuesday after his presentation to the Deterrence Summit. “Right now, all indications are we still remain on track.”
That is a legally binding deadline, but the NNSA has others: to produce at least 10 war-usable pits in fiscal year 2024 and 20 war-usable pits by 2025. On Tuesday, Verdon said the NNSA had “challenges” to overcome if the agency was to meet the interim deadlines.
“In particular,” Verdon said, “we’re trying to find out ways to get more time to schedule implementation of equipment” at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The lab is expanding its PF-4 plutonium facility into a pit-casting plant that can produce at least 30 nuclear triggers annually by fiscal 2026.
The interim milestones on the way to 30 pits a year in 2026 “serve as a good metric to force the system,” Verdon said. But “if we only make nine in 25, it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure.”
“The hardware that we need to make 10 [pits a year in 2024] is all on track to get installed,” Thomas Mason, the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory told the Monitor Monday on the sidelines of the Deterrence Summit.
The Los Alamos plant is in the spotlight more than ever since the NNSA in 2021 announced that the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, to be built from the canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, will not be ready to cast pits in 2030. The South Carolina site was to shoulder a heavier load than Los Alamos: 50 pits annually, which now will not be possible at Savannah River until perhaps 2035, the agency has said.
Los Alamos’ “30 pit per year capability is based on assumptions in terms of staffing, how many shifts you’re running, how efficient are you in using that equipment and also the expected downtime you would have due to equipment failures and maintenance and all that sort of stuff,” Mason said. “Embedded in that plan is a capacity to do more than 30, at least for a period of time.”