DC, Capitol Building, Flowers (copy)

The latest fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act was unveiled Monday night.

A $738 billion defense and energy policy bill revealed Monday night has entrenched the call for more plutonium pits, cores or triggers government officials say are needed for the country's aging nuclear weapons. 

The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, negotiated and refined over the course of several months, supports "the U.S. Strategic Command requirement to produce 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030," according to a summary, which was published alongside a more-detailed report.

That sentiment was likely driven by the U.S. Senate. The Senate bill expressed that jumpstarting the plutonium pit production mission and establishing the proper infrastructure for it would be critical – and delays would be unacceptable.

The House version was less aggressive. Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at Arms Control Association, said the House bill had provisions "aimed at checking the excesses of the Trump administration's nuclear modernization plans."

The proposed NDAA would authorize billions of dollars total for nuclear weapons ventures under the U.S. Department of Energy's umbrella. Such work falls to the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency led by Lisa Gordon-Hagerty.

The local angle

The NNSA and the U.S. Department of Defense in May 2018 together recommended producing plutonium pits both in South Carolina and in New Mexico. At least 50 per year would be produced at the Savannah River Site, at a reworked Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, and another 30 per year would be made at a bolstered Los Alamos National Laboratory.

MOX, a multibillion-dollar nuclear fuel project, was canceled by the NNSA late last year. MOX had been more than a decade in the making. Costs and timelines had ballooned.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican who was involved in the House-Senate negotiations, on Tuesday afternoon hailed the National Defense Authorization Act compromise as a win. Specifically, the longtime congressman pointed to authorization of "full plutonium pit funding at the Savannah River Site" and the 80 pits per year guidance.

"I am thankful to have served on the NDAA Conference Committee for fiscal year 2020," Wilson said in a statement. "This conference's hard work led to the final bipartisan agreement released last night."

A vote on the defense authorization act – not actual funding – is expected in the House as soon as this week. It will then move to the Senate and, from there, to the president's desk. Leadership from both the House and Senate armed services panels said the goal is to move the legislation through the system expeditiously.

Trump signed the previous National Defense Authorization Act at Fort Drum, New York, to much fanfare. Wilson attended that ceremony.

Can it be done?

Satisfying the pit production demand by 2030 will be a challenge, if not a feat.

Officials with the Energy Department, its NNSA and at the Savannah River Site, about 30 minutes south of Aiken, have separately agreed the roughly 10-year turnaround is tight. And an independent report handled by the Institute for Defense Analyses painted a dim picture: reaching 80 pits per year is possible, but "extremely challenging"; no available option will likely satisfy the demand by deadline; and further risk assessment is needed.

Pit production critics and nuclear watchers, in general, have questioned the need for more weapon cores, as well as the general ability to produce them at such a volume.

"They keep coming up with this number, 80, and I don't know where they get this from," SRS Watch Director Tom Clements has said. "They haven't justified it."

"The House sought to restrain the NNSA's pit production goals for good reason: because they are unnecessary and unexecutable," Reif, with Arms Control Association, said. He continued, "I expect the issue of expanding pit production to continue to be controversial in Congress given the significant technical, programmatic, budgetary, and environmental risks."

In an interview with the Aiken Standard, Gordon-Hagerty described repurposing MOX at the Savannah River Site as "a massive" infrastructure undertaking. In the same June interview, she said reaching 80 pits per year is a high – but reachable – bar.

Not meeting the mark would mean more demand for pits and at a higher cost, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a nuclear policy document. 

A Congressional Budget Office study released earlier this year very roughly estimated pit production to cost $9 billion over the next decade.

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