Every U.S. nuclear warhead and bomb has a plutonium core, or “pit.” Not counting surplus pits, the U.S. has about 11,000 usable pits, which will remain serviceable until the 2060s or after, according to a 2008 joint DOE/Pentagon report.
Despite the absence of a clear need to produce pits any time soon, in June 2017 the current administration decided the U.S. must have, by 2030, an operating pit production capacity making a minimum of 80 pits per year, single-shift. The National Nuclear Security Administration estimates this would provide an average of 103 pits per year.
By October 2017, a detailed analysis by the NNSA had concluded that pit production in a repurposed MOX facility had the least capital cost, most attractive schedule and lowest program risk of any alternative.
In April 2018, NNSA contractors finished an engineering assessment of four alternatives, which observed that standing up a production capability at the Savannah River Site in addition to the smaller program at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) would entail large extra costs. All-LANL alternatives were however estimated, despite the rosy assumptions used, to have higher failure risks.
Shockingly, the engineering assessment omitted to mention that LANL’s plutonium facility, upon which all LANL options depend, would need replacement during the 50-year life-cycle analyzed. The LANL facility was designed in the early 1970s for research, not production, and lacks safety-class fire protection and ventilation. Its seismic safety is still unknown. In 2017 NNSA formally decided this facility provided no enduring production capability. Replacement, if possible at all, would cost much more than the MOX facility has cost.
In May 2018, NNSA and DOD decided to rely on LANL for 30 pits per year (and training), and on SRS for an additional 50 pits per year, which unlike LANL could be readily expanded.
In April 2019 the Institute for Defense Analyses concluded (as NNSA also had in 2017) that the 2030 deadline was virtually impossible, and any attempt to rush pit production was likely to prove counterproductive.
DOD, NNSA and Congress must now revisit their decisions. Congress is in the process of doing so.
LANL was assigned the pit mission in 1996. Twenty-three years and many billions later, LANL’s capacity is zero. It will remain zero until essential repairs, installations and safety enhancements are complete. This will take at least five years and cost, according to NNSA, $3 billion.
Success would be unprecedented. Many obstacles lie ahead, including the profound institutional mismatch of trying to jam a high-hazard production mission into a scientific laboratory, and LANL’s intractable, severe cultural problems. NNSA doesn’t acknowledge half these problems and has no plan for dealing with the rest.
LANL is entirely unsuited to production for fundamental, unchangeable reasons. Washington diktat can’t change LANL’s inappropriate location, topography, geology, institutional identity and culture. If NNSA wants more than R&D, pilot production and training, SRS is the only option.
But again, why the rush? DOD and NNSA must revise their arbitrary requirements in accordance with reality. There are far better near-term uses for these funds.