Due primarily to COVID-19, Los Alamos National Laboratory believed it could take a year longer than expected for the the lab to casting 10 plutonium pits annually in New Mexico, according to an internal document.
A redacted copy of the Los Alamos-authored document, dated September 2021 and released by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) under the Freedom of Information Act, was viewed by Defense Daily affiliate publication, Weapons Complex Morning Briefing.
Since the publication of the September 2021 document, high-level NNSA officials have downplayed a legally binding deadline for the agency to produce at least 10 pits annually at Los Alamos by 2024 and instead emphasized that the agency believes it can still cast at least 30 pits a year at the lab by 2026, assuming round-the-clock operations.
In the 20 months spanning February 2020 to September 2021, which the lab called a “COVID-impacting period,” personnel working to convert Los Alamos’ PF-4 Plutonium Facility into a pit factory did only about seven months worth of “capital equipment installation” work, according to the document.
That put the 10-pits-a-year milestone behind by 14 to 15 months, Los Alamos wrote in the document. The lab also wanted that the delay “directly impacts” its ability to shift up to 30 pits annually by 2026.
An NNSA spokesperson at agency headquarters in Washington did not reply to a request for comment.
The agency’s 2023 budget request, published in March, said the NNSA still planned to make 10 pits annually in 2024. In February, at the Exchange Monitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit, Charlie Verdon, then NNSA’s deputy administrator for defense programs, said the agency was “trying to find out ways to get more time to schedule implementation of equipment” at the Los Alamos National Laboratory,” and that “if we only make nine [pits] in 25, it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure.”
Current law requires the NNSA to make at least 10 pits a year by 2024, at least 20 a year by 2025 and at least 30 a year by 2026. Some time in the 2030s, according to NNSA’s current schedule, a second planned pit factory would come online at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., and produce at least 50 pits annually.
Initially, both plants would produce pits for W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile warheads: newly manufactured copies of the W78 warhead. W87-1 would be used on the silo-based Sentinel missiles, built by Northrop Grumman [NOC], that the Air Force plans to put into service around 2030 to replace the current Boeing [BA]-made Minuteman III fleet.