A Pentagon official pulled out of a scheduled public briefing about plutonium pit production at the Savannah River Site on Monday because of a gag order imposed by a Biden administration review, a group advising the South Carolina government on nuclear matters said.

Drew Walter, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, was supposed to brief the South Carolina Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council about Savannah River pits on Monday, “but at the present time, the Biden administration is engaged in a full review of the program and until such time as they settle out on exactly what they want to do moving forward, [Walter] would not be available,” said Rick Lee, the council chair.

Biden appointees to top Pentagon posts, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, have persistently refused to say whether the administration will support every planned nuclear modernization program funded during the Obama and Trump administrations. These include casting new pits in South Carolina and Los Alamos, New Mexico, and refurbishing all existing air, land and sea-based nuclear weapons.

Also at the Governor’s Advisory Council meeting on Monday, Stuart MacVean, president of the Fluor [FLR]-led of Savannah River Site management and operations contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) should by mid-May or early June publish its latest cost estimate for producing pits at the Savannah River Site.

The estimate will be part of SRPPF’s CD-1, or Critical Design 1, report. CD-1 is the milestone in DoE program management when the agency selects a preferred design for some project and provides a range of possible costs. A more precise cost estimate and construction schedule, or baseline, nominally follows at CD-2. 

By 2030, the NNSA plans to cast 80 pits annually, including 30 at Los Alamos and 50 at the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF), which will be built from the remains of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. Initial pits will be for W87-1 warheads slated for use on the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missile.

In rough estimates made outside the critical decision process, the NNSA has said it may cost $4.6 billion to build the SRPPF, $3 billion to build the Los Alamos pit factory at the lab’s PF-4 Plutonium Facility, and north of $30 billion to operate both for about 50 years. On Monday, however, MacVean would not be drawn about the Savannah River Site’s CD-1 cost estimates for building and operating SRPPF. 

The high-end of estimate for SRPPF construction in the CD-1 package, at least for one of the scenarios Savannah River Nuclear Solutions vetted, is said by one source with knowledge of headquarters’ thinking to be far greater than the $4.6 billion estimate the NNSA has circulated for the past three or so years.

DoE headquarters has “asked a lot of questions about the cost volume, the basis of estimate, how we built that up, and we’ve still got some differences of cost that we need to work our way back through,” MacVean told the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council on Monday. “It’ll be a little while before we come to agreement on what the numbers actually are.”