Delays to plutonium pit production are Gen. Hyten’s ‘greatest infrastructure concern’
(Tribune News Service) — The vice chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff in a letter dated Tuesday said his greatest infrastructure concern is "any delay" that translates to missed deadlines for plutonium pits, nuclear weapon cores to be produced, as proposed, in both South Carolina and New Mexico.
"As our nuclear weapon stockpile ages, it is essential that we continue to modernize our aging DOE infrastructure," Gen. John Hyten wrote to U.S. Rep. Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Achieving production rates of 30 pits per year in 2026 and 80 pits per year in 2030, Hyten suggested, "is essential to address the stockpile's aging components, support modernization, and improve safety and resiliency for an uncertain future."
The glaring predicament, though, is that the National Nuclear Security Administration no longer believes the broader demand for plutonium triggers can be satisfied on time.
The prospective Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site, where at least 50 of the warhead components are expected to be made, could come to fruition as late as fiscal year 2035, and all of the pit work cannot be accomplished at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, according to Dr. Charles Verdon, the acting boss of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the weapons-and-nonproliferation agency, Jill Hruby, a former Sandia National Laboratories director, in late May said 30 pits per year at Los Alamos was "on track" for 2026. Verdon, in congressional testimony Thursday, corroborated that timeline.
Older National Nuclear Security Administration environmental reviews have stated both sites could boost production and staffing to meet the 80-pits-per-year demand. But exactly when — how soon — isn't clear.
"Even with a potential surge in production at Los Alamos, there remains uncertainty about that capability, especially with their history of outages," U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, told the Aiken Standard this month. "I plan on continuing frequent dialogue with both NNSA officials and military leadership to address the best strategy to mitigate this risk."
Hyten, previously the leader of U.S. Strategic Command, has described the resurrection of plutonium pit production as the National Nuclear Security Administration's "highest" infrastructure priority.
"Our national requirement, supported by numerous studies and analyses, requires no fewer than 80 war-reserve pits per year by 2030," the general testified in February 2019. "I support the NNSA plan to achieve this."
He reiterated his support in the missive to Turner: The tandem approach, repurposing the failed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility footprint and bolstering Los Alamos, he wrote, "gives us the best chance for meeting the requirement."
Verdon on Thursday said the two-site production strategy remains the most cost- and time-efficient, despite higher-than-expected price tags and a schedule slip.
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