Dave Olson, SRNS, Augusta Metro Chamber

Dave Olson, the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility mission director at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, spoke to members of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

Preparing for and crafting preliminary designs for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, the proposed plutonium pit hub at the Savannah River Site, is a national affair with distinct local ties.

The sizable effort stretches from east to west, and in South Carolina touches Greenville and the Aiken area, more specifically, according to Dave Olson, the pit production mission director for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the head contractor at the site.

"It's being done by four agencies," Olson said Tuesday afternoon, speaking to the Aiken Standard after a lunchtime presentation to the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Security work – things to keep the facility protected, as he described it – is entrusted to Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, an installation recognized for its defense portfolio.

"They do that for all the NNSA projects," Olson said, using shorthand for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy's weapons-and-nonproliferation arm.

So-called "process equipment," used to make the pits, or nuclear weapon cores, is being handled by Merrick, a company out of Colorado, Olson explained. Merrick just recently opened an office in Aiken.

Fluor in Greenville has been delegated work related to systems that aren't "safety in nature," Olson said. "So ventilation, power, water, that kind of thing."

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions – the management and operations contractor at the Savannah River Site, and the team the NNSA tapped to spearhead preliminary pit assignments – is doing some of the safety-tied designs, like fire systems, and is also considered the integrator of it all.

In total, Olson described it as a "team effort."

Conceptual design work, done with the help of plutonium experts, an NNSA senior spokesperson has previously told the Aiken Standard, will inform future mission decisions and funding.

The early designs could be approved in September 2020, Olson said. That's in line with predictions made by other nuclear executives.

"So this time next year," Olson noted.

At least 80 plutonium pits, commonly referred to as nuclear weapon triggers, are needed by 2030, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a leading Pentagon nuclear policy document. The pits will be used to bolster the nation's nuclear stockpile, officials have said.

"In some cases there's weapons that are 40 years old," U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said in a Fox News interview earlier this year. "As any type of product, it's going to have some degradation."

"The country needs a nuclear deterrent," Olson said Tuesday, speaking from a personal perspective. "There are still countries that aren't our friends."

In order to satisfy the military demand, the NNSA and the U.S. Department of Defense last year recommended making 50 pits per year at the Savannah River Site and the remaining 30 pits per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the nation's plutonium center of excellence.

As proposed, the pit mission at the Savannah River Site requires renovating and reusing the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, a never-completed, multibillion-dollar project that was terminated Oct. 10, 2018.

Millions of dollars were expected to be used for conceptual plutonium pit production design at the Savannah River Site, the NNSA senior spokesperson said in February. A separate multimillion-dollar pool was provided to Savannah River Nuclear Solutions for MOX termination and transition activities, as was reported earlier by the Aiken Standard.

The lead contractor filed its MOX turnover plan around Christmas.

"We're looking at footprint, layout, design, what have you. We've got a phenomenal group of people working on this effort right now," NNSA chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty said in a June interview. "…We've got stand-up teams, we're doing things. I see engagement across our entire enterprise."

Failing to meet the 2030 pit production deadline would ripple into higher costs and a greater demand for the pits, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

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