Capitol, House pits report

The Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Federal lawmakers continue to be concerned about plutonium pit production and the National Nuclear Security Administration's ability to establish a reliable means of crafting enough of the nuclear weapon cores by 2030, an approaching deadline.

Given the NNSA's challenges in building complex nuclear facilities "on time and on budget, coupled with the extremely constrained time frame and planned use of expedited processes and procedures, the risk of not meeting pit production milestones is high," reads a report released over the weekend accompanying a $49.6 billion fiscal year 2021 House spending bill.

Compounding the matter is a lack of contingency planning should the National Nuclear Security Administration – the U.S. Department of Energy's weapons-and-nonproliferation agency – not meet its mark, according to the report.

The production of at least 80 pits per year is required by 2030, with some due years before that. The pits, according to officials, will be used to refresh and update the nation's aging nuclear arsenal.

"Want to know where 80 pits per year came from? It's math. Alright? It's really simple math," Peter Fanta, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, has said. "Divide 80 per year by the number of active warheads we have – last time it was unclassified it was just under 4,000 – and you get a timeframe."

The U.S. has for years not made pits en masse.

To satisfy the 80-pits-per-year demand, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense in 2018 recommended a cross-country, two-pronged approach: 50 pits per year would be pumped out at the Savannah River Site south of Aiken, and 30 pits per year would be pumped out at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a plutonium center of excellence near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Forging the nuclear weapon cores at the Savannah River Site would mean repurposing the never-completed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, a cost-bloated venture the NNSA canceled in late 2018 after flagging progress and a legal battle with South Carolina. Billions of dollars and years of work had been expended on the troubled nuclear-fuel project by that point.

Flipping MOX – and producing the total 80 pits per year by 2030, in general – will be no simple task. William "Ike" White, the former NNSA chief of staff, early last year described it as a significant and ambitious undertaking; Savannah River Nuclear Solutions President and CEO Stuart MacVean has said the weighty workload asks "us to do in 10 years what would typically take 15 to 20 in today's environment."

NNSA chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty has addressed and tried to assuage the apprehension. In an interview with the Aiken Standard last summer, Gordon-Hagerty said her agency has "turned a corner" when it comes to major infrastructure projects. At the time, she cited construction of the Uranium Processing Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as proof.

"I recognize we have a long history of programs, the fits and starts of different facilities in the past," Gordon-Hagerty added. "That's no longer the case at NNSA."

Colin Demarest covers the SRS, DOE, its NNSA and government, in general. Support his crucial reporting and local journalism, in general, by subscribing. Follow Colin on Twitter: @demarest_colin.