The Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2020 National Defense Authorization Act would authorize full funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s plan to build nuclear weapon cores in two states, a senior committee aid confirmed Thursday.
The Committee finished a closed-door markup of the annual military policy bill Wednesday, then had senior aides brief the press about the bill’s contents. The bill also includes the requested level of funding for all Pentagon and civilian nuclear weapons programs, aides said.
The proposed pit authorization marks a victory, though not a final one, for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). For 2020, the agency sought $410 million for 2020 to design what it calls the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPFF) in Aiken, S.C. NNSA would build the facility on the site of a partially completed plutonium disposal plant. The SRPFF request was part of a $710-million ask for the agency’s Plutonium Sustainment budget.
SRPFF would by 2030 cast 50 fissile weapon cores a year, initially for future intercontinental ballistic-missile warheads. The plant would pair with planned upgrades to an old pit complex at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, which would start casting 10 pits a year in 2024, then ramp up to 30 a year by 2030. The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called on NNSA to make 80 pits a year by 2030.
The Senate committee’s National Defense Authorization Act would, despite some fretting over the expense this year by Armed Services Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.), make NNSA’s split-state pit plan would the law of the land. However, congressional appropriators must still provide the requested funds for the plants — and appropriators in the House already have not.
On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved a roughly $16 billion NNSA spending bill that recommended only $470 million for plutonium sustainment, without earmarking any money at all for the planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility. Essentially, the House committee permitted NNSA to start designing a pit plant at Savannah River, but did not give the agency all the funding it said it needed to do so.
An NNSA-chartered assessment completed last year by Parsons Government Services found it could cost about $30 billion to make pits at Los Alamos and Savannah River over the next several decades, and that the NNSA’s pit plan, at least as it existed then, was unlikely to meet the 2030 deadline of 80 pits a year.
NNSA officials including Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty have since said they have figured out a way to get the two-state pit complex back on schedule, provided Congress appropriates all requested funding.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a friend of the Los Alamos National Lab, has cited the Parsons study and another independent study completed this year by the Pentagon-funded Institute for Defense Analyses, as evidence that building pits in South Carolina could derail the agency’s budget.
Heinrich in hearings this year and last cited the Parsons’ report estimate that building pits only at Los Alamos might cost about half as much as a two-state complex.
NNSA and the Pentagon insist they need two pit plants in case one is unable to perform to spec.
Heinrich’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.