The National Nuclear Security Administration has concluded it does not need to further examine the broader, nationwide environmental repercussions of plutonium pit production.
In a federal notice, the NNSA, the U.S. Department of Energy's weapons-and-nonproliferation arm, announced no more National Environmental Policy Act "documentation at a programmatic level is required." A more-tailored analysis, though, is still expected for the Savannah River Site, one of two locations the nuclear weapon cores could be produced in bulk.
NEPA, enacted decades ago, is a law that makes agencies consider and weigh the environmental and health consequences of plans or projects.
The new conclusion – unveiled Tuesday and more widely publicized Wednesday – could prove to be a boon for the government's already time-crunched plutonium pit production endeavor. At least 80 plutonium pits are needed per year by 2030, a significant-but-achievable feat, as NNSA chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty has described it.
Missing that mark, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, would mean more demand and higher costs.
In May 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense together recommended making the nuclear weapon cores in both South Carolina and New Mexico. At least 50 per year would be made at the Savannah River Site, at a repurposed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, they counseled. Another 30 per year would be made at an improved Los Alamos National Laboratory, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
MOX, a multibillion-dollar, never-completed nuclear fuel project, was axed by the NNSA in October 2018.
"So, again, both making sure that Los Alamos meets their 30 pits a year, and implementing our preferred option of the second site at Savannah River, we're moving out to implement that," Charles Verdon, the NNSA's deputy administrator for defense programs, said in December. Verdon leads the team responsible for maintaining the nation's nuclear stockpile.
Some of those opposed to the U.S. jumpstarting its plutonium pit capabilities – there's no need for more pits, it won't be successful, it promotes an arms race, they have argued – have also come out against the National Nuclear Security Administration's study decision.
"NNSA does not want to expose the contradictions in its pit production plans to further scrutiny by the public, tribes, affected governments, Congress, or even by other NNSA and DOE programs, some of which will suffer as a result of the rush into pit production," said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group.
Nine Energy Department sites across the country are associated with the plutonium pit production mission.