A labor shortage initially blamed on COVID-19, but which has outlasted the nationwide response to the pandemic, hamstrung construction of new nuclear weapons factories and forced a construction triage at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency’s administrator told lawmakers Tuesday.

The construction or “craft” labor shortages at various sites contributed to several program delays, including planned plutonium pit production facilities in New Mexico and South Carolina and the Uranium Processing Facility in Tennessee, Jill Hruby, administrator of the NNSA, said Tuesday in a hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

“Of all of the issues that we have, construction and labor shortages are our biggest concern and the biggest cost driver and craft workers are a large part of that,” Hurby said Tuesday. We will look at all options for attracting more craftworkers.”

In the meantime, the NNSA planned to halt work on a new Tritium Finishing Facility at the Savannah River Site until 2029 so that the project does not sponge workers from the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility: the larger of the agency’s two planned factories for producing the fissile first-stage cores of nuclear-weapon primary stages.

“We’re delaying the Tritium Finishing Facility for one reason and one reason only…so that we can concentrate on getting the Savannah River pit production facility as close to 2030 as possible,” Hruby said. “We have a significant craft labor shortage. If we have two big projects going on at once, we’re going to have a bigger craft labor shortage so we’re delaying the tritium finishing facility.”

But all of these facilities, and others, are “critical for reconstituting plutonium production, assembling tritium packages and modernizing our high explosive science capabilities,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who chairs the subcommittee, told Hruby at the hearing. “If recruiting is so hard, why can’t we just pay potential workers more?”

“We do try to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Hruby said. “So, we have to make sure that’s going to work before we just willy nilly do it. But we will look at everything. This is an issue. We recognize it as an issue. We thought we would recover but we have a shortage of workers and honestly the productivity of workers is not where it has been historically.” 

A version of this story first appeared in Defense Daily affiliate publication Weapons Complex Morning Briefing.