The Department of Energy will not be able to deliver 80 new nuclear warhead cores a year in 2030 unless the civilian agency starts building new plutonium processing facilities in South Carolina by the middle of 2019, the head of the Nuclear Weapons Council said Thursday.
“From the Nuclear Weapons Council perspective, the Department of Energy (DoE) needs to start building up a plutonium processing capacity in South Carolina by early to mid-2019 to meet the requirement to produce at least 80 certified pits per year by 2030,” a spokesperson for Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told Defense Daily.
Lord chairs the joint DoD-DoE Nuclear Weapons Council that coordinates interagency nuclear-weapons procurement and policies. The warhead cores at issue are called plutonium pits: grapefruit-sized plutonium balls that must be replaced every 70 years or so, according to the estimates DoE has made public.
Exactly how much progress the Defense Department expects DoE to make on a new pit factory in South Carolina by mid-2019 is not clear.
The Department of Energy (DoE) did not request funding for a plutonium processing capacity in the palmetto state in its fiscal year 2019 budget, and the agency is not slated to release its fiscal-year 2020 budget request until February.
Also a mystery is whether DoE believes it can meet the Pentagon’s timetable.
Dan Brouillette, the deputy secretary of energy, and William “Ike” White, acting principal deputy administrator of the agency’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) declined to reply to questions from Defense Daily about the agency’s ability to meet the Pentagon’s timeline in the hallways of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in Washington this week.
As part of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review published in February, the Trump administration requested that Department of Energy produce at least 80 plutonium pits a year. The cores are needed for ongoing weapons modernization funded by DoE and could in theory be used to build new nuclear weapons, should the White House deem that necessary and Congress approve funding to do so.
NNSA wants to make 30 pits a year in Los Alamos New Mexico beginning in 2026, plus another 50 a year starting in 2030 at the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility under construction at DoE’s Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility was designed to turn surplus plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel under an arms control pact with Russia finalized in 2010. DoE has deemed the facility too expensive and this year reiterated plans to cancel the plutonium disposal mission and convert the plant into a pit factory. South Carolina is fighting the decision in federal court, where a judge has blocked DoE from ceasing construction would-be weapons facility.
DoE’s own internal evaluations already show the agency will likely miss the 2030 pit deadline by a few years, but any delay converting the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility for pit duty would only postpone the day the civilian agency can reach the Pentagon’s desired throughput.
NNSA public affairs did not reply to a request for comment this week. The agency has previously said that its “ability to meet the Department of Defense schedule requirements depends on our two-pronged approach at the Savannah River Site and at Los Alamos.”
Defense Daily reporter Vivienne Machi contributed to this story form the Pentagon.