Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command and effectively customer-in-chief for the nuclear weapons maintained by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), is scheduled today to tour the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Hyten was set to tour the site’s tritium facilities, which process a crucial hydrogen isotope that magnifies the explosive power of thermonuclear weapons, and the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF): an unfinished plutonium disposal plant the NNSA wants to turn into a factory for producing fissile nuclear-warhead cores called plutonium pits.
Both materials are needed for current and future nuclear-weapon modernization programs. Hyten, as head of STRATCOM, commands all U.S. nuclear forces, irrespective of service branch.
“Gen. Hyten is visiting the Savannah River Site as a member of the Nuclear Weapons Council to get a first-hand view of the NNSA work at SRS [Savannah River Site] that supports national defense,” a Department of Energy spokesperson said by email Wednesday.
The spokesperson did not say whether Hyten was scheduled to meet with anyone from the civilian agency during his visit. A STRATCOM spokesperson deferred to the DOE statement.
The Nuclear Weapons Council is a joint Department of Energy-Department of Defense policy body that coordinates U.S. nuclear-weapon maintenance.
Hyten’s anticipated trip to the Savannah River Site comes as the NNSA projects it may not be able to produce at least 80 plutonium pits a year by 2030, as the Donald Trump administration requested in February as part of its Nuclear Posture Review, and as the agency’s efforts to turn the MFFF into a pit factory have nearly ground to a halt.
A federal judge in June blocked the NNSA from suspending MFFF construction at least until late September, if not longer. Congress also is mulling legislation that would prohibit the agency from closing the plant until at least fiscal 2020, which begins on Oct. 1, 2019.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the court injunction that put the brakes on the agency’s plan to produce pits in South Carolina, NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty floated the possibility of radically restructuring the weapons mission at the site. Among other things, Gordon-Hagerty said the NNSA would look at moving tritium processing to another site, possibly the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn.