The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has not won Rep. Adam Smith’s (D-Wash.) unconditional trust, but it has convinced him to authorize the agency’s plan to produce plutonium pits in two states, the House Armed Services chair told reporters Wednesday.
“Yes, I believe we are going to move forward with what the NNSA is saying about their pit production plan,” Smith told the George Washington University-sponsored Defense Writers Group. “But it will never be unconditional. I have major trust issues when it comes to the NNSA and how they spend money. And we’re going to exercise rigorous oversight of that process.”
The NNSA requested some $2.7 billion for primary modernization for fiscal year 2023, most of which would be for planned pit factories at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. That’s about $1 billion more than the fiscal 2022 budget of roughly $1.8 billion. Los Alamos, on the hook to crank out pits first, would take most of the 2023 request.
At this point, Smith said, the agency “has made the case for the pit production planned.”
Since the summer of 2018, when the NNSA officially announced its plan to split production of plutonium pits between upgraded facilities at Los Alamos and a converted plutonium recycling plant at the Savannah River Site, technical challenges have set back pit production plans more than opposition in Congress, which has been mostly limited to the leftward flank of the Democratic party.
The military says it wants the two facilities to produce 80 pits a year by 2030. The NNSA admitted in 2021 that it would not be able to do that because of unforeseen difficulties discovered while honing the South Carolina plant’s design. However, the civilian agency maintains that it can start making 30 pits annually at Los Alamos by 2026.
The Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility — to be built from the partially completed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility whose swords-to-plowshares-style pits-to-reactor-fuel mission DoE officially canceled in 2018 — should be ready to pick up the slack by 2032 to 2035, the NNSA has said.
“We need two sites to make pits,” Smith said Wednesday. “Los Alamos is not going to be able to make enough. They can probably make more than 30 if we do really well. But, again whatever you think of nuclear modernization, you need the pits. That’s one of the cornerstones of it.”
Pits are the fissile cores of nuclear-weapon primary stages.