The JASON group of scientists has endorsed a plan for the U.S. Department of Energy to immediately begin building new infrastructure to produce fresh nuclear-weapon cores, according to a letter written by the group’s program manager and published Monday by the Federation of American Scientists.
“[W]e urge that pit manufacturing be re-established as expeditiously as possible in parallel with the focused program to understand [plutonium] aging, to mitigate against potential risks posed by [plutonium] aging on the stockpile,” according to the Nov. 23 the letter submitted to Tod Caldwell at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Defense Programs Office in Washington.
Gordon Long, director of the JASON program office at contractor MITRE Corp., of McLean, Va., signed the letter. The message was an introduction to a classified report that the NNSA chartered JASON to write in 2019.
Long added that “present assessments of [pit] aging do not indicate any impending issues for the stockpile.” Pits are the fissile cores that power the primary stages of nuclear weapons. In a 2007 report, the JASONs said that “most weapons system types in the stockpile have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years.”
Congress appropriated more than $700 million in fiscal 2020 for the NNSA work on a two-state complex intended to produce 80 pits annually by 2030.
The NNSA first plans to upgrade the Plutonium Facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which is supposed to produce 10 pits annually starting in 2024 and ramp up to 30 per year by 2026. Meanwhile, the agency plans in 2020 to finalize a design for converting the partially built Mixed Oxide Fuel Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina into the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility: a planned factory the agency has tapped to cast 50 pits a year beginning in 2030.
Initial batches of pits at both sites will be for W87-1 warheads intended for the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent: a planned fleet of 400 silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles the Air Force wants to deploy starting in 2030 to replace aging Minuteman III missiles.
Editor’s note, 01/14/2020, 11:22 a.m. Eastern. – The story was updated with the correct projected date for Los Alamos National Laboratory to begin producing 30 pits annually.