A senior defense official declined to say Wednesday whether the Department of Energy can deliver nuclear warheads for next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles on time if Congress does not fund both the plutonium-pit production plants the civilian agency wants to build.
“I’m aware of the issue, but I wouldn’t want to sort of step on my colleagues toes by addressing the details,” David Trachtenberg, deputy under secretary of defense for policy, said in a speech at the Washington-based Brookings Institute. “I’ll defer on that one, for the time being, at least.”
A spokesperson with DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) did not immediately reply to a request for comment about whether the agency can meet the Pentagon’s timetable for deploying new silo-based, Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) intercontinental ballistic missiles starting around 2030 if Congress does not let the civilian agency manufacture plutonium pits in two states.
The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called on the NNSA to annually manufacture 80 pits — fissile nuclear-weapon cores — by 2030. The agency subsequently decided to make 30 pits a year at the Los Alamos National Laboratory starting in 2026, and 50 a year starting in 2030 at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. At Savannah River, NNSA plans to convert a partially built plutonium-disposal facility into a pit factory.
The first pits NNSA plans to make in these factories will be suitable for use in the planned W87-1 warhead: a refurbished W78 warhead intended for use on the GBSD missiles that will replace current the fleet of 400 Minuteman III silo-based missiles.
But key figures on both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, including Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chair of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, have blanched at the price of NNSA’s proposed two-plant pit complex: $30 billion over the life-cycle of both plants, compared with $15 billion to produce all 80 pits a year at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
That is according to an engineering analysis completed for NNSA in 2018 by Parsons Government Services.
Congress is due to return to Washington April 29. The Senate has scheduled closed markups of its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for May, but the House is holding open markups in June. Lawmakers will reveal then whether they are willing to commit to NNSA’s two-state pit complex, or whether they want the agency to check its ambitions.
The NNSA is asking Congress for $410 million for fiscal year 2020 to start designing the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility. The Armed Services Committees have to authorize the planned pit facility before appropriations committees can fund it.