The Department of Energy would no longer have to make 80 plutonium pits a year by the end of the next decade, if legislation unveiled Monday in the Democrat-controlled House becomes law.
The legislation, due for a vote Tuesday by House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee “would repeal the requirement for the Secretary of Energy to demonstrate the capability to produce war reserve plutonium pits at a rate sufficient to produce 80 pits per year by 2027,” according to the subcommittee’s portion of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The NDAA is the annual policy bill that sets funding limits for defense programs including those managed by the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The full House Armed Services Committee is set to vote on the entire House NDAA on June 12.
Plutonium pits are the fissile cores that power the first stage of modern nuclear weapons. Current law requires NNSA to demonstrate by 2027 that it could produce up to 80 war-usable pits a year. The agency does not plan to maintain that level of throughput until 2030, however. The Donald Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called on NNSA to produce no fewer than 80 pits a year by 2030.
The House panel’s pit proposal is part of a broader effort by House Democrats to slow deployment of next-generation, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The 80 pits a year NNSA plans to produce by 2030 and beyond are all for the W87-1-style warheads that will tip Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missiles.
Some House Democrats argue the U.S. can do with fewer intercontinental ballistic missiles. Advocates for the fleet say such missiles protect the U.S. by forcing Russia to keep its own fleet trained squarely on U.S. silos, rather than softer targets.
The House subcommittee proposal, if passed by the full House, sets up a showdown with the GOP-controlled Senate. On May 23, the upper chamber’s Armed Services Committee approved its version of the 2020 NDAA, which authorized NNSA to continue with plans to make at least 80 pits a year by 2030.
NNSA plans to make pits using both an upgraded pit plant at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a proposed facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
The Senate’s bill authorizes NNSA to build both plants, but the House panel’s bill directs the agency, if necessary, to slow-roll the proposed Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility — which NNSA says could cast 50 pits a year by 2030 — and focus on producing 30 pits a year by 2026 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Like a 2020 DOE spending bill approved in May by the House Appropriations Committee, the strategic forces subcommittee’s 2020 NDAA does not forbid construction of a South Carolina pit plant. Instead, it directs NNSA to “ensure that efforts to design and construct a second [pit] site do not divert resources, including personnel and funding, from Los Alamos National Laboratory.”