The proof-of-concept plutonium pit for the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile warhead is still on the slate for fiscal year 2023, but cranking out 30 copies annually just three years after that will be “challenging,” the director of the world’s first nuclear weapons lab said last Friday.

But “I would rather push to a timeline that is challenging,” Thomas Mason, the Los Alamos lab director, said in an online forum hosted by the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance and the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“As a complex, we may have been…in a mode where because of the…fear of not meeting something, we default to more comfortable schedules and budgets,” Mason said. “And that may be great from the point of view of not overrunning the budget and meeting the schedule, but if it means that you’re not getting product out for another couple of years, that has an impact, too.”

Federal law requires the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to be capable of making 30 warhead cores annually by 2026 and 80 annually by 2030. The NNSA probably won’t hit 80 pits annually until the early 2030s or even 2035, Charles Verdon, the agency’s acting administrator admitted in congressional testimony in June. 

That is because construction of the planned pit factory at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., will cost more and take longer than anticipated in 2018, when the NNSA formally settled on a two-state pit plan. Verdon told Congress this year that the NNSA remains confident Los Alamos’ planned pit plant will make its 30 triggers a year by 2026.

LANL is Design Agency for Next Navy Sub Warhead

Also in Friday’s online forum, Mason confirmed that the Los Alamos National Laboratory will be the design agency for the W93 submarine-launched, ballistic-missile warhead. The weapon, to be built on a nuclear explosive package tested at full yield before the early 1990s moratorium on such tests, will be the closest thing to a new design the labs have done since the Cold War ended.

In early 2020, days after the White House unveiled the W93 program but before the NNSA had officially assigned responsibility for the weapon to one of its design labs, Mason said at the Exchange Monitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit that the rhythm of NNSA weapon refurbishments pointed toward W93 going to Los Alamos. 

Los Alamos’ B61-12 and W88 Alt-370 refurbs are supposed to begin production in the early 2020s, followed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories’ W80-4 and W87-1 refurbs in the mid-2020s. Given that back-and-forth between the two labs, the W93, the next project in the pipeline, could be given to Los Alamos, Mason said at the summit.

Mason also joked at the 2020 summit that LANL, the acronym for the lab, stands for “Los Alamos Naval Laboratory.”

W93 will cost up to $18 billion or so and “closely resemble the W87-1 Modification Program,” the NNSA wrote in its fiscal year 2021 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan. The weapon will one day replace both the Navy’s W76 and W88 warheads.