Rep. Adam Smith doesn't trust the Savannah River Site

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Aug. 31—The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday hit the Savannah River Site with a one-two punch that again casts doubt on the reserve's future role in the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

In a conversation with Brookings, a think tank, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith said he distrusts the Savannah River Site following the failure of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility and suggested the site's stake in the production of plutonium pits, the cores or triggers in modern nuclear weapons, may prove extraneous.

The current demand for plutonium pits — 80 by 2030 and beyond — "was based on President Trump's Nuclear Posture Review and their projected beliefs, in terms of what they were going to need," the Washington Democrat said. A clearer, more up-to-date picture will emerge in the next year, he said, as the Biden administration completes its review of nuclear weapons strategy and other plans mature.

"If, in fact, we need more than 35 or 40 pits a year, then we are going to need a second facility," Smith said.

Two plutonium pit production hubs — a tandem approach — are being pursued: one in South Carolina, at the Savannah River Site, and one in New Mexico, at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The potential Palmetto State factory would use MOX as a foundation; it could cost some $11 billion to complete.

Los Alamos is slated to begin production first, and "seems capable of doing 30" plutonium pits a year, maybe 40, Smith said Tuesday. Anything more "would be very difficult." Officials with the National Nuclear Security Administration have expressed similar beliefs. Dr. Charles Verdon, the deputy administrator for defense programs, has said relying solely on New Mexico is unrealistic.

"So that's a to-be-determined, in all likelihood," Smith said Tuesday, "once we get back the information from the next 12 months or so."

His skepticism is nothing new. In early August, the chairman pressed the president to audit plutonium pit production plans to "ensure it is both necessary and achievable within the announced cost and schedule."

"In nearly every instance, NNSA programs have seen massive cost increases, schedule delays, and cancellations of billion-dollar programs," he wrote Aug. 9. "This must end."

Before that, Smith said he was "highly skeptical that they're going to be able to turn" the abandoned MOX building "into an effective pit production facility. Highly skeptical." And before that, Smith said he would "confidently bet $100" that the Savannah River Site would not uphold its end of the cross-country production bargain.

"Savannah River sort of gives me an involuntary twitch after the whole MOX disaster. I don't trust them," Smith said Tuesday, a day before the House Armed Services Committee is set to mark up a version of the National Defense Authorization Act, a mass of spending figures and policy. "We sent about $8 billion their way that was never going anywhere and was a colossal waste of money."

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