By April, both of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s next-generation plutonium-pit factories should reach the critical decision 1 milestone that solidifies the long-conceptualized designs of the facilities intended to manufacture new nuclear-weapon cores for most of this century.

The semi-autonomous Department of Energy nuclear weapons agency is planning the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s PF-4 Plutonium Facility and the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF) at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

The National Nuclear Security Administration plans a critical decision review for the Los Alamos factory in April 21,

the independent federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board wrote in a recent report. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the Savannah River site management contractor, was targeting an April critical decision 1 review for SRPPF, NNSA has said.

The Joe Biden administration could drastically alter the fate of both facilities if it seeks, and Congress allows, changes to the intercontinental ballistic missile program scheduled to sponge up most of the throughput from the next-generation pit plants over the next decade.

Biden’s first federal budget proposal, nominally due in the first week of February, is already late: something the administration last week blamed on the Donald Trump administration.

The Los Alamos pit facility, involving modifications to an existing building and some new supporting infrastructure such as parking, is set to come online first and cast multiple war-ready pits starting in fiscal year 2024. SRPPF, the more ambitious of the two, will be built from the partially completed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River and come online in 2030. 

By 2030, Los Alamos is supposed to make 30 pits annually and SRPPF is supposed to make 50 annually. All of those pits are initially supposed to be for the W87-1 warhead planned to tipped the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missile: the successor for Minuteman III. 

The next-generation missile will deploy in 2030 or so, initially with W87-0 warheads that contain no new pits but later with the 87-1, which will be essentially a newly built copy of the legacy warhead with a fresh pit.

The NNSA estimates it will cost some $3 billion over five years to finish the Los Alamos pit plant and about $4.6 billion to finish the SRPPF. The agency estimates these facilities will cost more than $30 billion to operate over several decades.

This story first appeared in Defense Daily affiliate publication, Weapons Complex Morning Briefing.