Savannah River pit production could miss 2030 target, says Biden nuke nominee

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May 27—President Joe Biden's pick to lead the National Nuclear Security Administration on Thursday suggested a plan to craft nuclear weapon cores at the Savannah River Site had slipped in terms of schedule, potentially imperiling South Carolina's expanded role in the modernization of the nation's nuclear weapons.

While the production of 30 plutonium pits per year at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory remains on track for 2026, nominee Jill Hruby told U.S. senators, "50 pits per year at Savannah River, originally planned for 2030, is likely to, now, be somewhere between" 2030 and 2035.

Analysts, environmentalists and National Nuclear Security Administration critics were quick to pile on; Hruby's Thursday remarks, made before the Senate Armed Services Committee, were to some confirmation of long-running suspicions.

"I think she was only affirming the reality of the situation and what we've been expecting," said Tom Clements, the director of Savannah River Site Watch, a Columbia-based monitor. Los Alamos Study Group's Greg Mello offered a similar assessment: "I'm not shocked. The Institute for Defense Analyses said as much in 2019."

An independent review two years ago ruled that no available plutonium pit production method would likely satisfy the demand for the cores in a timely manner, among other damning findings. The Department of Defense, the study stated, should consider how to best respond to the shortfall.

"Nearly everyone who has assessed the NNSA's plan to produce at least 80 pits per year by 2030 has determined that the goal is not achievable," said Kingston Reif, the director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. It remains to be seen, he continued, whether the "administration and Congress will change course as reality demands, or continue to waste taxpayers dollars chasing a fantasy."

A National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson on Thursday said early designs submitted for the Savannah River Site "were peer reviewed by subject-matter experts from Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and both assessed that the" 50-pits-per-year minimum can be achieved. The provided schedule range, the spokesperson noted, was 2031-2035.

Hruby, who would lead the National Nuclear Security Administration following Senate confirmation, on Thursday described the jumpstart and expansion of pit production as the agency's "biggest" contemporary hurdle. Other officials — past and present — have said the same. U.S. Strategic Command boss Adm. Charles Richard, for example, has portrayed the multibillion-dollar endeavor as "the biggest stockpile modernization issue."

"This is an example where if we don't recapitalize the infrastructure," Richard said in April, "we will lose a key piece of what it means, what you have to have to be a nuclear weapons state."

The U.S. for years has lacked the means to make plutonium pits — key warhead components — at a significant capacity.

In May 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Department recommended producing the cores in two places: South Carolina and New Mexico. By 2030, they jointly counseled, 50 pits per year would be produced south of Aiken, utilizing the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility footprint, and 30 pits per year would be produced near Santa Fe, New Mexico, using an upgraded plutonium facility known as PF-4.

Both Hruby and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm support the tandem approach. (U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, does too.)

"I believe that the two-site solution is a good solution for a couple of reasons," said Hruby, who retired as the director of Sandia National Laboratories in 2017. "One is that — as expressed by NNSA and, again, I agree — it's more resilient than a one-site solution, should anything go wrong, should there be an accident. It allows the other site to continue to make pits."

Relying solely on Los Alamos, Hruby said, would demand "much more infrastructure investment." Leveraging the Savannah River Site and MOX, the failed nuclear fuel facility, "allows us to have a cost-effective program, use the talents across the NNSA complex."

Establishing the production of 30 pits per year at Los Alamos could cost between $2.7 billion and $3.9 billion, according to an early estimate published by the National Nuclear Security Administration. A more solid cost and schedule baseline is expected in 2023.

A consequential decision concerning plutonium pit production at the Savannah River Site is expected sometime next month. The project milestone, known formally as Critical Decision-1, should arrive in mid- to late-June, according to people familiar with the matter.

"This summer, efforts will focus on advancing the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility through the Critical Decision" process, acting National Nuclear Security Administration chief Charles Verdon said in written testimony earlier this month.

The successful execution of the Savannah River Site pit project, the spokesperson said, "is vital to restore the nation's ability to produce plutonium pits to ensure the long-term effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear stockpile."

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