The head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would not rule out the possibility here Thursday that one of the agency’s two planned plutonium pit factories could independently supply all the fissile nuclear weapon cores initially required for planned refurbishments of U.S. nuclear weapons.

“[W]e are not looking at [using] one exclusive of the other,” Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), told sister publication Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor in a question-and-answer session during a breakfast hosted by area nonprofits the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance. “That is not our plan.”

In a 2020 budget bill signed before the holidays, Congress at last funded the first step in a plan the NNSA publicly announced in 2018: produce at least 80 plutonium pits a year starting in 2030 by upgrading an existing pit plant, the PF-4 Plutonium Facility at the Los Alamos National Lab, and converting the partially built Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site into a new pit plant called the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF).

SRPPF would get more than $400 million of the $710 million or so appropriated for the entire Plutonium Sustainment account. The NNSA is the semiautonomous Department of Energy agency in charge of U.S. nuclear weapons and materials.

The old Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility has about three times as much space available for the highest-hazard pit operations than PF-4 does, according to the NNSA’s 2017 analysis of alternatives about pit production — an analysis Gordon-Hagerty called out on Thursday as a foundational document for the agency’s current pit strategy. 

Yet the NNSA boss declined to say if either facility could eventually surge production enough to make 80 pits annually by itself. Instead, Gordon-Hagerty stuck to what the agency wrote in its 2020 budget request: that the initial capabilities of SRPFF won’t be decided until Sept. 30, 2020, at the latest.

That is the date by which the NNSA plans to reach the facility’s CD-1 milestone, which in Department of Energy project management marks selection of a final design.

“Capabilities will come as CD-1 informs us on what Savannah River plutonium facility will look like,” Gordon-Hagerty told Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Thursday.

Gordon-Hagerty’s top weapons deputy, high energy density physicist and former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory hand Charles Verdon, has been similarly cagey about surge capacity in the past year.

“We’re focused on the present right now,” Verdon said in September, when Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor asked him whether SRPFF could one day absorb the entire pit mission. “I don’t know how to predict the future in that regard.”

Initial pits cast at PF-4 and SRPFF would be for W87-1 warheads, which are slated to tip the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent: a planned missile that is supposed to start replacing some 400 Minuteman III silo based intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2030.

The Air Force’s timeline for that necessitates an earlier start for pit production than even the NNSA, the optimist in the room on this issue, deems possible at the proposed SRPPF. 

The civilian agency has tapped the yet-to-be-designed factory to produce 50 pits annually in 2030. So, to help keep the Minuteman replacement on target, PF-4 is supposed to start casting pits first, beginning at 10 annually in 2024 and ramping up to at least 30 a year by 2026.

The NNSA’s 2017 analysis of alternatives actually suggested that something like SRPPF could, by itself, handle an 80-pits-a-year mission, and that NNSA ought not even to consider splitting production between that facility and any other. 

However, the pit issue has proved politically thorny since then, with Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) needling the agency over the last few budget cycles about the need to build a pit plant anywhere other than Los Alamos. The lab has already produced war-reserve pits — the last in 2011 — and produced five demonstration W87-1 pits in 2019, marking a milestone at the birthplace of nuclear-weapons, which in 2013 shut down pit production amid criticality safety lapses.

On top of that, South Carolina’s congressional delegation, spearheaded by Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), was upset with the NNSA’s 2016 decision — finalized in 2018 — to cancel the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility’s mission to recycle surplus plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants.

Amid those political headwinds came the Nuclear Posture Review of 2018, which called for a “resilient” pit complex. Gordon-Hagerty, who became administrator the same month the Pentagon published the review, seized on that directive as a reason to split pit production between New Mexico and South Carolina.

Since then,  the NNSA has usually avoided equating “resilient” with “redundant.”

Meanwhile, key lawmakers and even the NNSA itself are skeptical the agency will hit 80 pits a year only 10 years from now. The 2017 analysis of alternatives, years old now, concluded that 2033 was a more likely start date. A subsequent NNSA-chartered review, an engineering analysis completed by Parsons Government Services [PSN] in 2018, said the facility now called SRPFF probably could not make 50 pits a year until 2035.

Both reviews, as well as a congressionally mandated parsing of the Parsons study by the Alexandria, Va.-based Institute for Defense Analyses in 2019, thought the NNSA’s plan was technically sound. The 2019 study said the goal is “potentially achievable,” given enough “time resources and management focuses.” The analysis of alternatives, back in 2017, thought the NNSA might hit its target production levels “under ideal circumstances.”

Circumstances since then have been less than ideal.

Gordon-Hagerty, for her part, continued to acknowledge Thursday that the pit goal is a challenge.

We don’t do anything quickly,” Gordon-Hagerty said, mentioning the hazards of radioactive materials involved with the undertaking, and the difficulty of training and clearing new members of the plutonium workforce.

“It’s true that many of our critical activities are on borrowed time,” Gordon-Hagerty said Thursday. “[T]ime is of the essence.”