Morning Briefing - April 25, 2019
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April 25, 2019

DOD Official Ducks Question of Plutonium Pit Assurance if Congress Allows Only 1 Site

By ExchangeMonitor

WASHINGTON – A senior Pentagon official declined to say here Wednesday whether he believes the Department of Energy can deliver nuclear warheads for next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles on time if Congress does not fund both the plutonium-pit production plants the civilian agency wants to build.

“I’m aware of the issue, but I wouldn’t want to sort of step on my colleagues’ toes by addressing the details,” David Trachtenberg, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said following a speech at the Brookings Institution. “I’ll defer on that one, for the time being, at least.”

In an email, a spokesperson with DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said the agency “is focused on the two-site approach for plutonium pit production that was endorsed by the Nuclear Weapons Council in May 2018.” 

The Donald Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called on the NNSA to annually manufacture 80 pits — fissile nuclear-weapon cores — by 2030. The agency subsequently decided to make 30 pits a year at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico starting in 2026, and 50 a year starting in 2030 at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

The first NNSA pits would be suitable for use in the planned W87-1 warhead: a refurbished W78 warhead intended for use on the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missiles that starting around 2030 will replace the current fleet of 400 Minuteman III ICBMs.

But key figures on both the House and Senate Armed Services committees, including Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chair of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, have blanched at the estimated price of the NNSA’s proposed two-plant pit complex: $30 billion over the life-cycle of both sites, compared with $15 billion to produce all 80 pits each year at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Senate has scheduled closed markups of its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for May, while the House is holding open markups in June. Lawmakers will reveal then whether they are willing to commit to the NNSA’s two-state pit complex.

The NNSA is asking Congress for $410 million in fiscal 2020 to start designing the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility. The Armed Services committees must authorize the planned pit facility before it receives any appropriations.