DOE Headquarters, Forrestal Building, DC

The James Forrestal Building, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C.

McLEAN, Va. — A top weapons expert at the National Nuclear Security Administration last week pushed back on skepticism that the production of plutonium pits – nuclear weapon cores – won't meet a deadline years over the horizon.

People have highlighted studies finding "that, you know, maybe we won't achieve 2030," Charles Verdon, the NNSA's deputy administrator for defense programs, said at the Nuclear Modernization Seminar. "The only thing I'm certain of is that if we don't start, we won't achieve it."

Verdon, who leads a team responsible for maintaining the nation's nuclear weapons, reiterated his commitment to the pit production endeavor, which will likely cost billions of dollars over the next decade and could intimately involve – and employ – the Aiken County community. The deputy administrator also stressed the time to modernize both warheads and related infrastructure is running short.

"Clearly, reestablishing our capabilities of making pits at the quantity that we've identified is one of our top priorities, and it is, in our view, a key focus area that we're committed to," Verdon said, responding to questions posed by the Aiken Standard.

In May 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Defense together recommended jumpstarting the production of plutonium pits and setting those roots in both South Carolina and New Mexico.

By 2030, at least 50 nuclear weapon cores per year would be made south of Aiken at the Savannah River Site, they jointly suggested. The remaining 30 per year would be pumped out at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a plutonium center of excellence near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

The pits will be used to refresh the nation's aging nuclear weapons, officials, including Verdon, have said. Ellen Lord, the chairwoman of the Nuclear Weapons Council, in written testimony in May described successful pit production as a defense "lynchpin," adding, "Delay is no longer an option."

"So, again, both making sure that Los Alamos meets their 30 pits a year," Verdon said Dec. 12, "and implementing our preferred option of the second site at Savannah River, we’re moving out to implement that."

Actually reaching 80 pits per year by 2030, though, will be quite tough, according to an independent study handled by the Institute for Defense Analyses – the type of assessment Verdon alluded to.

The institute study, according to a publicly available summary, found that reaching 80 pits per year is possible, but "extremely challenging;" that no available option will likely satisfy the demand by deadline; and that further risk assessment is needed.

Those conclusions double down on what some officials have been saying: The schedule is tight.

"Right now, we're looking at not less than 80 pits per year by 2030," NNSA chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty said in a June interview with the Aiken Standard. "That's in a mere 10 years."

At the same nuclear seminar last week, the deputy director for weapons at Los Alamos, Bob Webster, said with the right funding and workforce, New Mexico will uphold its end of the bargain.

"Like for pits, it's not like we've never built a pit," Webster said.

The NNSA is the Department of Energy's weapons-and-nonproliferation arm. The semiautonomous agency already operates at the Savannah River Site.

In February, at the Nuclear Deterrence Summit, Verdon said the NNSA was "focused like a laser beam" when it comes to satisfying plutonium pit production requirements.

"My final comments: This is a busy and exciting time at NNSA," Verdon said at the time. "I think it's really an exciting time."

The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, a $738 billion defense and energy policy bill, backs the call for 80 pits per year. The NDAA has passed both the House and Senate and now awaits the president's signature.

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