The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) planned to have a detailed cost and schedule estimate for producing new nuclear weapon cores for the first time since the Cold War by Sept. 30, 2025, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday.
That’s the date by which the agency planned to advance its two planned plutonium pit factories to the project management milestone known as Critical Decision 2: the usual time for establishing a cost and schedule baseline for big construction projects.
But the Government Accountability Office, which on Thursday pegged the cost of the plants at $30 billion and rising, pleaded with the NNSA not to wait that long — and Congress has already ordered the agency not to wait that long.
“NNSA officials state that information is too immature to put together a life cycle cost estimate” for the pit program, the Government Accountability Office wrote Thursday’s report. “However, information, even if uncertain, does exist.”
The NNSA will soon have to lean on whatever information it has, certain or not, to provide Congress by March 31 with “high confidence assessments” of the agency’s slowly unfolding plans to build pit factories at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
Lawmakers ordered up the assessment in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act signed into law in early January.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office said, “the entire scope of work for the Plutonium Modernization program—to manufacture 80 pits per year across Los Alamos and Savannah River—is not included in a logically sequenced, dynamic schedule.”
According to the office, NNSA did share a Plutonium Modernization Schedule created in 2021, but that document “does not contain activities at all NNSA sites necessary to reach 80 pits per year,” the Government Accountability Office said.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the NNSA today has only a series of milestones and activities that culminate with the production at Los Alamos of a proof-of-concept pit — officially, a first production unit — in fiscal year 2024, which begins Oct. 1, 2023. NNSA plans to follow that up with production of 10 war-usable pits in fiscal year 2025.
That’s part of what NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby called, in comments appended to Thursday’s report, an integrated master schedule for the pit program. Congress urged the NNSA to create just this kind of schedule so lawmakers have a means of tracking the agency’s progress on the sprawling pit production program.
The Government Accountability Office panned that schedule.
“[B]ased on our analysis of the schedule NNSA provided, NNSA does not currently have an IMS [integrated master schedule],” the office wrote in Thursday’s report.
Building up the pit production complex at Los Alamos and Savannah River is by far the NNSA’s most expensive and challenging infrastructure project. Successive NNSA administrators have called the drive to restore U.S. production of these fissile, nuclear-weapon-first-stage cores the agency’s top priority.
If everything goes according to NNSA’s latest plan, the agency will by 2036 or so produce at least 80 pits annually using the combination of Los Alamos’ PF-4 Plutonium Facility and the planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility. Los Alamos will handle at least 30 pits a year by 2026 with Savannah River producing at least 50 in 2036, six years after a still-standing legal deadline to hit the 80-a-year mark.
For the foreseeable future, all pits produced will be for the W87-1 warhead the NNSA is developing for the Air Force’s planned Sentinel fleet of silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles: the replacement for the current fleet of 400 Minuteman III rockets.
Sentinel, slated to go into service by 2030 or so, will at first use W87-0 warheads: weapons pulled off the Minuteman missiles and adapted for the replacement rockets.