In a budget hearing that was mostly a best-of, a couple senators asked the acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) about alternative means of meeting the mission objectives of the day, including by producing pits at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory or buying, instead of enriching, uranium needed to produce weapons-tritium in the 2040s.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) asked Charles Verdon, the acting NNSA administrator, “what kind of investments would have to be made” to produce plutonium pits at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The NNSA’s current plan, which Congress blessed in 2018 but has waffled over ever since along mostly partisan lines, is to produce new war-reserve pits for W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile warheads at both the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site, with Los Alamos aiming to cast multiple deployable pits by 2024. 

Livermore doesn’t figure into the production plans, although the lab is the design agency for the W87-1 and its pit. It would be “a pretty big expense” to restart pit production at the California lab, which had its production facility decommissioned, Verdon told Fischer. The facility Livermore did have also wasn’t big enough to help the NNSA produce at least 80 pits a year by 2030, its current, self-admittedly ambitious, goal.

W87-1 is the planned tip for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which is supposed to replace the silo-based Minuteman III around 2030. Progressive elements in Congress have often called for halting the GBSD program and have continued to do so this year. 

The Biden administration, at deadline, was set to release its 2022 budget request on May 28, months before its nuclear posture review. House Armed Services Chair Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has said the nuclear posture review would be “helpful” for keying any changes to the ongoing 30-year, $1-trillion nuclear modernization program started in 2016 under the Obama administration.

Meanwhile at Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) asked Verdon whether the NNSA might consider buying uranium from Urenco, a European company with U.S. operations in Eunice, N.M., to produce tritium for nuclear weapons in the 2050s or so. 

The U.S. has enough uranium for that purpose now, but NNSA and Defense Department officials have said the country needs a new domestic enrichment technology to come online in the 2040s to prevent a future shortfall.

Verdon slipped, sidled and limboed his way past Rounds’ question, saying only that the NNSA — which insists that uranium used to produce tritium come entirely from the U.S. and be enriched only by purely domestic machines — considered such a purchase, calling it “potentially achievable” but a “big lift.”

The NNSA is looking at a technical solution to the tritium issue, Verdon said. The solution will come from whichever next-generation, domestic enrichment technology the agency selects for further development. The choice is between the AC-100 technology owned by Centrus, and a smaller enrichment technology developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

The NNSA has delayed this choice many times. The agency had planned to announce a downselect in January, but that plan unravelled not long after election day. Now, the NNSA has refused to say when it might select its preferred alternative. After the hearing, Verdon again declined to say when the agency might make its choice.