The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) on Tuesday approved Critical Decision (CD)-4 for the High Explosives Pressing Facility (HEPF) at the Pantex Plant, NNSA Administrator Frank Klotz said Wednesday at sister publication ExchangeMonitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Washington, D.C.

CD-4 indicates readiness to operate the facility, following the construction phase. The agency in 2011 began construction of the 45,000-square foot HEPF at the Amarillo, Texas, site to combine into one facility high-explosive operations that were being conducted in several different, aging plant facilities.

Workers at the NNSA's Pantex Plant in Texas. Photo: NNSA
Workers at the NNSA’s Pantex Plant in Texas. Photo: NNSA

Part of the intent was to reduce the movement of high explosives at the site, and to provide the ability to produce up to 2,500 pounds of pressed high explosives per year, an increase over the previous capacity of up to 1,000 pounds, the NNSA said. The total project cost was estimated at just over $145 million.

In September 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had begun managing the project alongside the NNSA, turned over the facility to Pantex contractor Consolidated Nuclear Security. A period of testing and readiness reviews followed. According to Klotz, CD-4 approval now “means that we can start operations … in that facility.”

The Pantex Plant is responsible in part for replacing high explosives in nuclear weapons, part of the NNSA’s mission to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal. High explosives are used to initiate the sequence of events leading up to a nuclear detonation, by surrounding the nuclear core of a weapon and compressing the nuclear material during an explosion.

Klotz remains for now in his position as NNSA administrator, a position he has held since 2014. The Trump administration has not yet picked a new agency head and continues to consider candidates to take over Klotz’s role. Asked about this status Wednesday, Klotz said only that he serves at the pleasure of the president.