ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The plutonium pit production deadline is but a decade away, National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty said Tuesday afternoon, again highlighting a project timeline that officials continue to describe as tight.
"Since 2018, we have accomplished a great deal," said Gordon-Hagerty, who was speaking at the 2020 Nuclear Deterrence Summit via livestream from Vienna, Austria. "And what our enterprise is undertaking to reestablish the critical elements of the nuclear deterrent is nothing less than astounding."
About two years ago, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense together recommended producing plutonium pits, nuclear weapon cores, in both South Carolina, at the Savannah River Site, and in New Mexico, at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Pit production at the site, they counseled, should be done at a wholly renovated Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, the never-completed, multibillion-dollar nuclear fuel plant that was recently axed.
At least 80 pits per year are needed by 2030, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. Not hitting the mark would mean more demand for pits – though critics question the need for any number more – and higher costs, according to the major nuclear policy doctrine.
Two sites, Gordon-Hagerty said Tuesday, would help avoid devastating single points of failure; previous pitches have lauded the tandem approach as resilient and flexible.
"It was certified by the Nuclear Weapons Council as the most viable option to meet DOD's requirements," Gordon-Hagerty said.
The National Nuclear Security Administration's Savannah River Site manager, Nicole Nelson-Jean, speaking to the Aiken Standard on Tuesday, reiterated what's been said before: Resuscitating and fleshing out the U.S.'s pit production abilities in 10 or so years is ambitious.
"It's an aggressive schedule," Nelson-Jean said.
Los Alamos National Lab Director Thomas Mason, also speaking to the Aiken Standard on Tuesday, affirmed the pressure to produce is not felt just in the Palmetto State. Mason said there's a lot of work to be done in New Mexico – a full plate, as he put it.
While the remarks are new, the motif necessarily isn't. In August 2019, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions President and CEO Stuart MacVean said, "We are going like gangbusters on this." Fluor-led Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the longtime Savannah River Site management and operations contractor, is spearheading the MOX-to-pits transition.
"It's going to ask us to do in 10 years what would typically take 15 to 20 in today's environment," MacVean said during the same speech, alluding to, at one point, the Cold War.
In a June 2019 interview with the Aiken Standard, Gordon-Hagerty described the 2030 deadline as a challenge.
"But I believe that our entire infrastructure, the investments that we're making, and the commitment of our enterprise," the administrator explained, "we can do it."
President Donald Trump's fiscal year 2021 budget request, released Monday, included $19.8 billion for the NNSA, the U.S. Department of Energy's weapons-and-nonproliferation arm.