Stuart MacVean, CNTA, Pits

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions President and CEO Stuart MacVean was the lead speaker Wednesday at the Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness breakfast forum.

Jumpstarting the nation's ability to produce nuclear weapon cores, known as plutonium pits, will be a heavy lift, one that is shades similar to the Cold War era, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions President and CEO Stuart MacVean said Wednesday morning during a presentation in Aiken.

MacVean, who leads the longtime Savannah River Site management and operations contractor, told the audience he's heard "lots" of people recently talk of the Manhattan Project, the confidential wartime venture that led to the nuclear age.

"We are going like gangbusters on this," MacVean said. He continued, "It's going to ask us to do in 10 years what would typically take 15 to 20 in today's environment."

At least 80 plutonium pits are needed per year by 2030, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a leading Pentagon policy document. The pits are a cog in the weapons-modernization machine, officials have said.

The U.S. currently lacks the ability to meet the 80-pits-per-year requirement. So in May 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense together recommended producing 50 pits per year at the Savannah River Site – the place SRNS oversees – and 30 pits per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, an installation recognized as a plutonium center of excellence.

At SRS specifically, the joint recommendation calls for repurposing the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, an incomplete, terminated facility that was meant to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors.

"So I've never been in a position where we want to use an existing facility for the same kind of operation, so plutonium to plutonium," MacVean said, "and I've never tried to fit into a building that was bigger than you needed. Ever."

MacVean that morning described the proposed 10-year turnaround – mothballing MOX, building the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, getting things going and meeting the production mark – as "very aggressive." The schedule, he said, is "very compressed."

Other nuclear executives have expressed similar sentiments.

NNSA chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty in a June interview with the Aiken Standard described the MOX-to-pits transition as "a massive infrastructure program." The former NNSA chief of staff, William "Ike" White, in February said the two-pronged pit production recommendation was "ambitious" and represented a jolt to the system.

A "sense of urgency" is felt across the entire nuclear security enterprise, he said. White now leads the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management, the Savannah River Site landlord.

Blowing past the 2030 deadline would result in higher costs and a greater demand for pits, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

The NNSA tasked and funded Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, MacVean's team, to begin early-stage pit work months ago. The contractor submitted its MOX transition plan in December 2018. 

"The preliminary plans SRNS is developing show how we will make use of SRS's expertise, existing facilities and infrastructure to start up and carry out this important work, which builds on the site's historical service to the nation's nuclear security," a spokesperson has told the Aiken Standard.

But U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican no stranger to nuclear affairs, on Tuesday expressed serious skepticism about pit production at the Savannah River Site.

"One, pit production, they're talking about making 80 pits," Graham said. "I'll believe that when I see it."

Graham's remarks Tuesday echo what he said during an appropriations subcommittee hearing a few months ago: "I have no confidence you've got a plan. I think you're making this up as you go."

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin