A planned pit factory to be built at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., might take five years longer than the National Nuclear Security Administration wanted to produce its full load of war-ready nuclear weapon cores, the Biden administration’s nominee to lead the agency said last Thursday.
A slip at Savannah River, one of two proposed production sites, could put pressure on the Los Alamos National Laboratory to enter surge production at its own planned plutonium pit factory much sooner than the civilian nuclear weapons agency, at least publicly, has acknowledged would be necessary.
The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plans, and federal law currently requires it, to produce 80 plutonium pits annually by 2030. The agency means to produce 30 pits annually at the Los Alamos National Laboratory starting in 2026 and 50 a year at the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility starting in 2030. Each planned factory is supposed to be able to surge production, at least temporarily, to meet the 80-pit goal alone.
“The 30 pits per year at Los Alamos is on track to be delivered in 2026,” said Jill Hruby, the former Sandia National Laboratories director nominated by President Joe Biden to be administrator of the NNSA, said during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The 50 pits per year at Savannah River originally planned for 2030 … is likely to now be somewhere between 2030 and 2035.”
Both the New Mexico facility, the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project, and the South Carolina plant, the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF), turned in their critical decision-1 reviews to NNSA headquarters earlier this year. By late April, headquarters had approved the Los Alamos project’s review: a gateway that formalizes a design choice and establishes cost and schedule ranges.
On the other hand, “at the CD-1 review [for SRPPF] there was concern about making 2030,” Hruby told Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor after the hearing “We’re working on that.”
Acting NNSA Administrator Charles Verdon on May 20 told the Monitor that headquarters could approve the SRPPF critical decision-1 review by “mid-June.” In an email Thursday, an NNSA spokesperson broadened that to “summer 2021.”
“[S]ubject matter experts from Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories…both assessed that the [SRPPF] design can achieve the requirement of a minimum of 50 war reserve pits per year capacity,” the NNSA spokesperson wrote in the email. “The successful execution of the SRPPF project at the Savannah River Site is vital to restore the Nation’s ability to produce plutonium pits to ensure the long-term effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.”
All the pits initially made at Los Alamos and Savannah River Site will be for W87-1 warheads intended for the silo-based, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missiles slated replace Minuteman III missiles starting in 2030 or so.
Hruby testified Thursday alongside Frank Rose, nominated to be principal deputy administrator at the NNSA, and Deborah Rosenblum, who as the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs would be the staff chief for the joint DOE-Pentagon Nuclear Weapons Council: the nation’s nuclear weapons procurement management organization.