McLEAN, Va. — Should the cards fall favorably, Los Alamos National Laboratory will undoubtedly uphold its end of the plutonium pit production equation, the deputy director for weapons there said Thursday.
Those cards, though, include two very important, and often mercurial, factors: money and people. The former is at the whim of Congress. The latter is not.
"We're going to have assigned 30 pits per year by 2026," Bob Webster, the deputy director, said at the half-day Nuclear Modernization Seminar. "And we're going to get there if the funding shows up, and we install the machines, and we train the people, we bring on the workforce that does all the support work."
Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores – they're often referred to as triggers.
For years the U.S. has lacked the ability to produce, in bulk, usable plutonium pits. And that's a problem, energy and defense officials believe, as the nation's nuclear stockpile ages.
In 2018, the Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration recommended essentially resurrecting pit production and making South Carolina – the Savannah River Site – and New Mexico its home.
By 2030, at least 50 pits per year would be made just south of Aiken, they recommended. Another 30 per year would be made at Los Alamos National Laboratory, an installation recognized for plutonium excellence.
What's being asked of Los Alamos in the coming years is "not that different than what we did in the past," Webster said Thursday.
"Like for pits, it's not like we've never built a pit," he continued. "We actually built a pit last year that, had we wanted to, it could have been used. … So, we're not that far away."
While the deputy director was confident in his stake, he did express an overarching concern: the magnitude of it all.
The Congressional Budget Office in January roughly estimated pit production to cost about $9 billion over the next decade. Pit production, as suggested, would involve reworking the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site (the multibillion-dollar project was canceled late last year) as well as beefing up Los Alamos.
Fully satisfying the energy and defense departments' fiscal year 2019 nuclear-related requests would cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade, according to the same CBO analysis. The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House this week, reinforces the call for 80 pits per year.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, established in 2000, is the Energy Department's semiautonomous weapons-and-nonproliferation arm.
The Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado was the last place the federal government produced the nuclear weapon cores en masse.