An adviser to the U.S. energy and defense departments on national security and environmental issues on Monday said plutonium pit production, a major nuclear weapons venture, is critical to both the nation and the greater Aiken area.
"We're going to say today three things: Plutonium pit production is an imperative for the United States, it's good for Aiken, and this site can do it safely and effectively," retired Navy Vice Adm. Chuck Munns said, referencing the Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile nuclear reserve south of Aiken.
Munns was one of two key speakers at the Aiken Rotary Club's lunchtime meeting Monday. His presentation partner was Savannah River Nuclear Solutions President and CEO Stuart MacVean.
Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores – they're often referred to as triggers. The U.S. currently lacks the ability to produce pits en masse, and at least 80 per year are needed by 2030, as is laid out in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
In order to satisfy the demand, the Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the Energy Department, in May 2018 recommended producing the nuclear weapon cores at the Savannah River Site and at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a plutonium center of excellence.
MacVean on Monday described SRS as the "second arm of the two-armed approach." Others have described the proposed strategy – production in South Carolina and in New Mexico – as tandem or two pronged.
"Our two sites deal with a tremendous amount of plutonium," MacVean said, "and we work back and forth with them very aggressively."
The plutonium pits will be used to refresh the nation's nuclear weapons, officials have said. Munns reiterated that Monday.
"Second point, though, is that these weapons we are relying on today were built back here 40, 50 years ago," he said, pointing to a chart showing stockpile sizes throughout the years.
"And so you'll hear some say, 'We don't need to build pits now.' Well they're just flat wrong," Munns later added. "If we want a nuclear deterrent, which I tried to make the case we absolutely must have, then we have to refurbish our pits."
Watchdog groups have repeatedly called into question the motives and purpose of jumpstarted pit production. In June, a coalition of nuclear observers and environmental groups, including Savannah River Site Watch and Nuclear Watch New Mexico, hosted a town hall in downtown Aiken decrying the pit mission.
Munns spent more than three decades in the Navy – at some of its most high-profile and high-stakes positions – and is the former Savannah River Nuclear Solutions chief, the post now occupied by MacVean.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, a weapons-and-nonproliferation agency, has tasked SRNS with preliminary pit production work, including conceptual design of the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, the prospective SRS pit hub.