OMAHA, Neb. — The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) may not be able to produce 80 nuclear-warhead cores a year by 2030 unless by the end of this year it solves some of the issues preventing it from converting an unfinished plutonium disposal plant in South Carolina into a weapons facility, the commander of U.S. nuclear forces said here Wednesday.

The semiautonomous Department of Energy agency wants to cancel the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and convert the massive structure into a factory for plutonium pits: fissile nuclear-warhead cores the size of a grapefruit. The Pentagon needs the NNSA to make 80 pits per year by 2030: 50 at the converted MFFF and 30 at upgraded plutonium facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Photo: U.S. Air Force.
Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

“We all agree that that plan will work, if it’s executed this year,” Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters here during the STRATCOM 2018 Deterrence Symposium. “[T]he problem is that we’re not executing it.”

Hyten said that from his perspective, the clock is ticking for the NNSA to resolve the political and legal obstacles that have blocked the agency from kickstarting its new plutonium-production facilities. “By about next spring, we have to be on a path to building them,” he said.

South Carolina, its congressional delegation, and MFFF prime contractor CB&I AREVA MOX Services are all fighting the NNSA’s plan to turn the over-budget, behind-schedule plant into a weapons facility.

The state and the contractor have each sued the agency in federal court to keep plant on track with its original mission of converting nuclear weapon-usable plutonium into commercial reactor fuel as part of an arms-control pact with Russia. In June, the judge in the state’s lawsuit agreed to block the NNSA from halting construction for the duration of the lawsuit.

The NNSA appealed the decision, but there will be no oral arguments in the appeals court until late September.

Congress, meanwhile, has approved a 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that directs the NNSA to continue building the MFFF as planned. As with last year’s NDAA, the bill would allow the secretary of energy to waive the directive by certifying an alternative plutonium-disposal method is cheaper. Energy Secretary Rick Perry submitted just such a certification in May, but Congress effectively ignored it.

All those issues “are going to have to be dealt with in the very near future for us to make 2030,” Hyten said.