The Department of Energy plans a somewhat expedited environmental review of its plan to convert a partially built plutonium recycling plant at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., into a plutonium-pit factory, according to a decision posted online this week.
The agency has studied since June whether it must complete a brand new environmental impact statement about its plan to annually produce 80 pits — fissile nuclear-weapon cores — by 2030. The plan, unveiled in 2018, includes converting the unfinished Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at Savannah River into a factory that can annually produce 50 pits a year, starting next decade.
According to the decision that appeared online Tuesday morning, the agency’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) believes it does not have to review every single aspect of this plan, writing that “no further NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] documentation at a programmatic level is required.”
That could shorten somewhat the agency’s ambitious timeline to cast 80 pits a year starting in 2030. The agency plans to produce these pits with a combination of the converted MFFF, and an upgraded PF-4 Plutonium Facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Each planned factory would have enough “surge capacity,” under the NNSA’s plan, to compensate for production slowdowns at the other. Los Alamos, which is already producing proof-of-concept pits, would begin producing war-usable pits first, beginning with 10 a year in 2024.
Environmental groups that oppose the NNSA’s pit plan, on the grounds that the agency could simply reuse old pits when it refurbishes weapons, want the DoE nuclear-weapon steward to complete a brand new programmatic environmental impact statement for the split-state pit complex. Besides the planned factories at Los Alamos and Savannah River, such a review would, among other things, have to consider the potential effects of transporting plutonium to and from those sites.
The NNSA, which says existing pits are too old to be placed in weapons that must remain war-ready throughout the second half of this century, has said the two-state pit plant would not affect the environment much differently than earlier pit-production concepts the agency has studied. Therefore, the agency said, it can satisfy legal environmental obligations to study the latest pit concept by supplementing the existing studies.
For example, the NNSA plans to supplement a 2008 site-wide environmental impact statement about Los Alamos pit production by studying the effects of the current plan to make 30 pits a year or more at the lab, according to this week’s decision. The results of that study would appear, at some point in the future, as a site-specific supplement analysis to the 2008 document.
The NNSA also plans to write a new site-specific environmental impact statement covering MFFF, including conversion to a pit plant and production of at least 50 pits a year there. That review would be limited to potential effects at the Savannah River Site.
The first batches of pits the NNSA plans to produce this decade and next will be for W87-1 warheads: the military’s choice to tip the next generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The Air Force wants to start putting those missiles in silos in 2030. The new missiles will replace the 1970s-vintage fleet of Minuteman III missiles.
The service has challenges of its own to keep the GBSD procurement on track. Northrop Grumman [NOC] is the only company that bid to build them, and Minuteman incumbent Boeing [BA] has not ruled out protesting either the acquisition or an eventual Northrop Grumman award. The NNSA will have to start casting pits at Los Alamos more or less on the projected schedule to get an armed GBSD missile in the ground 10 years from now.
The NNSA has admitted it will be “challenged” to make 80 pits a year by 2030. Internal studies funded by the agency, and which later became public, concluded that the agency might not hit that level of throughput until at least the early 2030s. The agency has since said that it can still make the 2030 date.