It would make sense for the Department of Energy to have more than one production facility for the fissile cores of nuclear warheads, a senior Pentagon official with broad responsibility for nuclear weapons procurement said Friday.
“To me, it doesn’t quite make sense to go down to a single point of failure anywhere,” Peter Fanta, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, said at the Capitol Hill Club during a breakfast presentation hosted by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Fanta said this was not an official Pentagon position and that he was speaking only for himself. His personal opinion, however, echoed the sentiments of Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the top uniformed officer in charge of U.S. nuclear forces, who in August told Defense Daily that “two [plutonium pit] capabilities is always better than one.”
The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review put the Department of Energy on the hook to produce at least 80 war-ready pits per year by 2030. The agency settled on a so-far controversial strategy to make the cores by upgrading an existing pit plant at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and converting the unfinished, over-budget Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina into a second manufacturing facility.
South Carolina has sued DoE to stop the agency from canceling the MFFF and its plutonium disposal mission. In June, the state won an injunction, which DoE appealed, that temporarily blocks the civilian agency from closing the facility. The Pentagon has said DoE needs to start converting the plant for pit duty by mid-2019 if it hopes to make 80 pits annually by 2030.
The Energy Department and South Carolina are set to deliver their respective arguments for keeping and lifting the injunction against closing the plant on Sept. 27 in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Fanta would not say whether DoE should abandon its plans to convert the MFFF into a pit plant. He did, however, express some frustrations about the roughly 20-year-old stockpile stewardship era in general: the current DoE paradigm for assuring the upkeep and explosive potency of Cold War-era nuclear warheads using supercomputer modeling and chemical testing, but no nuclear-explosive tests.
“[T]he Department of Energy is a defense industry, it just happens to be nationally owned,” Fanta said. “We have to start treating it like a defense industry. We have to start saying that we will no longer let it go idle. We have to start treating the workforce, the intellectual capital, and the infrastructure behind it like a defense industry. We would never let our defense industry that builds fighter planes, bombers, submarines, and [intercontinental ballistic missiles] go idle for two decades and then expect it to just spin right up.”
Fanta added that he did not support a return to explosive nuclear testing, but that he did back some sort of DoE weapons production beyond the current portfolio of life-extension programs for nuclear weapons.
“We’ve done an amazing job with spinning up industry to revitalize our platforms and our delivery systems,” he said, referring to DoD’s capability to design and produce new missiles, bombs, submarines, and aircraft. “We have a way to go yet. We’re not at the production rate that we need with those. But we are at a zero production rate right now with weapons, other than refreshing what we have. We have to stop the slide, we have to turn it around.”