Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 27 No. 5
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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor
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February 03, 2023

Los Alamos will have equipment to make 30 nuke cores by 2030, according to DOE memo

By Dan Leone

The Los Alamos National Laboratory will install by 2030 the equipment needed to make at least 30 plutonium pits annually, according to a Jan. 19 memo from the deputy secretary of energy.

Formally known as the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project 30 Base Equipment Installation subproject, the installation will provide the lab with “the minimum equipment necessary to provide 30 war reserve PPY [pits per year]” by Aug. 30, 2030, according to the memo signed by David Turk, the deputy secretary of energy.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said this equipment is not necessary to produce 30 war-reserve pits annually.

“Achieving 30B subproject CD-4 is not necessary to start producing 30 ppy,” the NNSA spokesperson wrote in an email to the Exchange Monitor. “The project will aim to deliver equipment to support 30 ppy production as close to 2026 as possible, and LANL will be building [war reserve] pits using existing equipment as the project proceeds. The project will also turn over equipment to operations as it becomes available, which will minimize the time to meeting this milestone.”

CD-4 is critical decision, four, the point in DOE project management at which the agency deems a facility fully built and ready to begin operations. The installation subproject’s expected CD-4 is about four years later the NNSA hoped to start casting at least 30 pits, nuclear-weapon first-stage cores, at Los Alamos’ PF-4 Plutonium Facility. PF-4 has been able to make pits for years, but not the 30 annually that NNSA says it has to make to meet the Department of Defense’s quota.

Turk’s memo was the formal notice that the pit-equipment-installation subproject reached the DOE project management milestone known as critical decision 2/3. Critical decision two signifies that a project has received a formal cost and schedule estimate. Critical decision three marks the start of construction.

The Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project 30 Base Equipment Installation subproject will cost a total of roughly $1.85 billion to complete, according to Turk’s memo. Fiscal year 2024, which begins Oct. 1, will be the peak spending year, at an estimated $470 million.

After decades of stop-start planning and debate that reached the highest levels of government, the NNSA in 2018 said it would build a pair of pit factories to provide the U.S. with new nuclear weapon cores for much of the rest of the century.

The Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project at Los Alamos, consisting of upgrades to the PF-4 Plutonium Facility and surrounding buildings, is supposed to make at least 30 pits annually. The Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., is supposed to make 50 pits annually. The Department of Defense wants the NNSA to cast at least 80 pits a year by 2030, but the civilian agency in 2021 acknowledged that it could not meet that deadline.

The NNSA told Congress in 2022 that the Savannah River facility would likely not be built until 2036.

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