Confirming what appeared intuitively obvious, the Department of Energy said Tuesday that Los Alamos National Laboratory will have to manufacture 80 nuclear weapon cores year by itself in 2030, if a planned facility at the Savannah River Site is not ready by then.

Planned upgrades for Los Alamos National Laboratory’s PF-4 plutonium facility “would provide the ability to produce a minimum of 30 pits per year, with surge efforts to produce 80 pits per year if needed,” the DoE’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) wrote in its Draft Supplement Analysis of the 2008 Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for the Continued Operation of Los Alamos National Laboratory for Plutonium Operations.

Federal law passed in 2019 requires the NNSA to annually produce at least 80 plutonium pits — fissile nuclear weapon cores — in 2030. The cores to be cast at Los Alamos and Savannah River will be for W87-1-style warheads slated for future silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. Los Alamos National Laboratory is supposed to begin pit production in 2024 at an upgraded PF-4 Plutonium Facility, ramping up to 30 pits annually by 2026.

The planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPFF), to be built from the remains of the cancelled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., is supposed to come online in 2030 and produce 50 cores a year. The warheads are needed for Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Missiles, which the Air Force wants to start deploying in 2030 or so to replace the current Minuteman III fleet. 

A senior NNSA official said last week the next-generation missiles might initially be deployed with existing Minuteman III W87-0 warheads. Members of Congress have often asked why the NNSA requires to pit plants if one might do, and the question may well arise again, in a budget year where the agency seeks a 25% increase to about $20 billion annually — an increase that would cost the Navy a Virginia-class attack submarine in the coming fiscal year.

The NNSA has touted the split-state pit complex as essential national security resilience, while also avoiding saying that either planned pit plant could handle the full pit workload of at least 80 a year. In 2018, the Los Alamos National Laboratory issued, then retracted, a press release in which then-interim-lab-Director Terry Wallace said the site could handle 80 pits a year, with the planned upgrades to PF-4.

There is a political dimension to the NNSA’s plan. In canceling the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, the agency angered South Carolina’s congressional delegation. However, the Savannah River Site in theory has more room for a pit mission than Los Alamos, and a newer building in which to put the pit work. At the same time, New Mexico’s congressional delegation has resisted every effort to produce pits anywhere but in the Land of Enchantment, and has openly said it would welcome the entire pit mission.

Just getting to 30 pits a year at Los Alamos would require the lab to hire and train 400 additional employees, according to Tuesday’s supplement analysis. With the site on the hook to cast 30 pits in 2026, that leaves a little less than six years to get the workforce in place. Surging up to 80 pits a year would require more heads on top of the 400 already needed, according to the supplement analysis.

The NNSA has requested more than $835 million in fiscal year 2021 to upgrade PF-4, more than double-and-a-half the 2020 appropriations of just under $310 million. For the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, the NNSA seeks just over $440 million for 2021, or about 8% more than the 2020 appropriation. The agency expects the entire split-state pit complex to cost around $30 billion to build and operate over several decades.

The NNSA is working on a series of environmental reviews of its planned pit complex, as required by the National Environmental Protection Act. The document published Tuesday essentially made the agency’s case that it need not conduct a blank-slate environmental review of the the Los Alamos pit plant, because the facility is similar in its environmental footprint to a concept the agency reviewed in 2008.

The next in the pipeline is a new site-specific environmental impact statement that would cover the effects of converting the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility into SRPPF. The agency has not yet published that document and has not said exactly when it will.