Morning Briefing - March 11, 2020
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March 11, 2020

Planned Los Alamos Pit Plant Could Surge to 80 a Year, NNSA Says

By ExchangeMonitor

Confirming what appeared intuitively obvious, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said Tuesday the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico will have to manufacture 80 nuclear-weapon cores a year by itself in 2030, if a planned facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina is not ready by then.

Planned upgrades for Los Alamos’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4) “would provide the ability to produce a minimum of 30 pits per year, with surge efforts to produce 80 pits per year if needed,” the NNSA said in its Draft Supplement Analysis of the 2008 Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for the Continued Operation of Los Alamos National Laboratory for Plutonium Operations.

Federal law passed in 2019 requires the semiautonomous Department of Energy agency to annually produce at least 80 plutonium pits — fissile nuclear weapon cores — in 2030.

Los Alamos is supposed to begin pit production in 2024 at an upgraded Plutonium Facility, ramping up to 30 pits annually by 2026. The planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPFF), to be built from the remains of the canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, is supposed to come online in 2030 and produce 50 cores per year.

The warheads are needed for Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missiles, which the Air Force wants to start deploying around 2030 to replace the current Minuteman III fleet. 

The NNSA has touted the split-state pit complex as essential national security resilience, while also avoiding saying that either planned plant could handle the full workload of at least 80 cores a year. In 2018, the Los Alamos National Laboratory issued, then retracted, a press release in which then-interim Director Terry Wallace said the site could handle 80 pits a year, with the planned upgrades to PF-4.

Just getting to 30 pits a year at Los Alamos would require the lab to hire and train 400 additional employees, according to Tuesday’s supplement analysis. With the site on the hook to cast 30 pits in 2026, that leaves a little less than six years to get the workforce in place. Surging up to 80 pits a year would require more heads on top of the 400 already needed, according to the supplement analysis. 

As part of a requested, and controversial, $20 billion 2021 budget request, the NNSA seeks more than $835 million to upgrade PF-4, more than double-and-a-half the 2020 appropriations of just under $310 million. For the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, the NNSA seeks just over $440 million for 2021, or about 8% more than the 2020 appropriation. The agency expects the entire split-state pit complex to cost around $30 billion to build and operate over several decades.

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