NNSA Charles Verdon, Nuclear Deterrence Summits

National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Charles Verdon addresses the 2020 Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Alexandria, Virginia.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The production of nuclear weapon cores, known as plutonium pits, at a storied site in northern New Mexico will influence and enlighten a related production effort recommended for the Savannah River Site south of Aiken.

Charles Verdon, who leads a team in charge of caring for the nation's nuclear weapons, on Wednesday said the ramp up of plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe, is being used as "the template to inform us of what we have to do" in South Carolina.

"We recognize it's a different site, different configuration," Verdon, a National Nuclear Security Administration executive, said at the 2020 Nuclear Deterrence Summit, "but we are trying to learn from what we're doing at Los Alamos to inform what we're going to do at Savannah River."

That template touches everything from workforce needs – those actually producing pits, working hands on, as well as security guards, for example – to parking lots and extra facilities and secure entry areas, he explained.

"You know, a lot of effort goes into designing the equipment, designing the glovebox, designing the flow of the process," Verdon explained.

Gloveboxes are large, sealed containers used to handle toxic or dangerous materials, like plutonium.

At least 80 plutonium pits per year are needed by 2030 to satisfy defense demands, according to various officials as well as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a look at U.S. nuclear abilities and related geopolitics, initiated by President Donald Trump. The pits – triggers, essentially – will be used to refresh the nuclear weapons stockpile.

"Want to know where 80 pits per year came from? It's math. Alright? It's really simple math," Peter Fanta, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, said in December. "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."

Environmentalists, nuclear watchers and arms control professionals, though, have questioned the actual need for more pits.

The U.S. has not had the capability of producing large amounts of pits for years; the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, where pits were last pumped out en masse, was investigated, raided and shuttered decades ago.

To meet the 80-pits-per-year demand, then, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense in 2018 recommended forging the cores in two states: South Carolina, at a rate of 50 per year, and New Mexico, at a rate of 30 per year.

Pit production at the Savannah River Site, they jointly counseled, would require repurposing the mothballed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. The proposed plant has since been named the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, often simply referred to as "SRPPF."

"We are, obviously, keenly focused on the 80 pits per year. We are making progress in that area," Verdon said Wednesday. "We're making good progress at Los Alamos, not only installing equipment, but actually producing and developing pits at Los Alamos."

Production in New Mexico – 30 per year – must be realized in 2026, whereas the program at the Savannah River Site has a couple more years to mature.

Bob Webster, the deputy director of weapons at Los Alamos, a plutonium center of excellence, on Wednesday said he is dedicated to hitting the mark and executing what's been asked of him and his team. National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty on Tuesday said the nation's nuclear priorities, pit production included, are clear moving forward.

"I want us to get to 30 with exquisite operations," Webster told the audience at the Nuclear Deterrence Summit. "No operational upsets, no safety issues, no nothing like that. And that's frankly where my focus is right now."

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