The Department of Energy will hone its acquisition approach for the plutonium-pit plant to be at the Savannah River Site around September 2020, a long-time agency contractor said on Wednesday.
Fluor [FLR]-led Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the Savannah River site management contractor, is on the hook to turn in a CD-1 decision to the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) by the end of the government’s 2020 fiscal year. That is according to Gregory Meyer, Fluor’s senior vice president for operations in the environmental and nuclear group, who spoke during a question-and-answer session here at the ExchangeMonitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Arlington, Va.
CD-1 is the Department of Energy project management milestone at which the agency certifies that a design choice meets a previously established mission need. CD-1 is also the point at which the government lays out a possible procurement approach and establishes a preliminary cost estimate that typically is not revealed to the public. NNSA establishes official cost estimates at CD-2.
After a protracted legal and political battle, NNSA in October canceled MOX Services’ prime contract to build the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) and began plans to convert the former plutonium-disposal plant into a factory capable of annually producing 50 warhead cores called plutonium pits by 2030.
Should NNSA actually decide to turn MFFF into a pit plant, the work would become a choice plum for industry, and one of the only NNSA missions up for grabs at Savannah River in the foreseeable future. The other is the agency’s tritium mission, which would be a part of an estimated 10-year, $15 billion Savannah River site-management contract the Department of Energy’s Environmental Management office still has not put on the street for bids. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions is on the job through July.
Meyer, for his part, thinks NNSA’s planned pit mission at Savannah River is “achievable.”
But on Tuesday at the summit, former NNSA Defense Programs Director Everett Beckner called 50 pits a year by 2030 “a high hurdle” to clear.
The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called on NNSA to make at least 80 pits a year by 2030. The agency subsequently said it would split the work between the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the converted MFFF.
Los Alamos’ PF-4 plutonium facility would start producing war-ready W87-style pits, suitable for land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, by 2026, then ramp up to 30 annually by 2030. The converted MFFF, in this scenario, would open production of war-ready pits at 50 a year in 2030, with help from Los Alamos personnel.
There is some intra-agency and political pressure to keep the entire pit production mission at Los Alamos. Last year, through then-director Terry Wallace Los Alamos said that PF-4 could eventually ramp up production to 80 pits annually all by itself. Likewise, New Mexico’s U.S. Senate delegation is pressing NNSA to explain the agency’s plan for giving Los Alamos the entire pit mission, if converting MFFF does not pan out.
Amid these pressures, no industry players here volunteered an interest in taking on the possible MFFF conversion work. However, one former NNSA official, who spoke alongside Meyer here, laid out some general qualifications that could lead to a winning bid.
“It will take a contractor team that posses project management skills that can manage and integrate the projects currently with strong management capabilities,” said Douglas Dearolph, Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] vice president of independent performance assurance in the nuclear and environmental group.
“[I]t will take an inclusive integrated project team that operates together with integrated program and product realization,” said Dearolph, who retired from NNSA in 2018 after almost a decade as the manager of the agency’s Savannah River Field Office.
But even the best team is bound to encounter unforeseen difficulties as NNSA and its contractors delve deeper into the agency’s unprecedented plan to turn a plutonium disposal plant into a pit-production machine, Dearolph warned.
“This will not be easy and if not done precisely will erode the actual benefit of having inherited a partially constructed structure,” Dearolph said. “This will be a unique challenge.”