U.S. plutonium pit production and disposition plans face congressional scrutiny

by Greg Mello

The U.S. Department of Energy's plans for plutonium pit production and for disposal of 34 tons of surplus plutonium are facing challenges in Congress as well as from litigation by South Carolina.

On May 10, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, and Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, issued a joint statement recommending development of an industrial plutonium warhead core ("pit") production capability at the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site (SRS) near Aiken, SC, centered in the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF).

The recommended pit production strategy involves substantial near-term "plutonium sustainment" investments at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), sufficient to create a 30 pits per year production capacity in Building PF-4 at by 2026, while simultaneously investing in a larger and more resilient capacity in a repurposed MFFF at SRS for the 2030s and afterwards. The one-page fact sheet describing the strategy shows no additional pit production buildings at either SRS or LANL.

Pit production capacities refer to accepted "War Reserve" (WR) pits only and do not include developmental pits, experimental units, rejected pits, etc. All capacities refer to single-shift operations. NNSA and DoD state required capacity in terms of the most demanding pit type, taken to be the W87 pit for the Minuteman III missile and Mark 21 reentry vehicle. After 2030, pit production is required to meet an 80 pits per year goal in 9 out of 10 production years.

Ellen Lord, in her capacity as Chair of the Nuclear Weapons Council, certified that the joint pit production recommendation met the requirements of Section 3141 of the FY2018 NDAA, noting that there were "major construction and certification schedule risks inherent in the plan." "It is essential," she said, "that NNSA resource near-term surge pit production at [LANL's] PF-4 to the fullest extent practicable" to "hedge against potential schedule risks in repurposing MFFF." The next "construction major milestone decision point" - for reconstruction and outfitting the former MFFF - is estimated to occur in 2021, Ms. Lord said.

Also on May 10, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry waived DOE's obligation to continue MFFF construction in favor of a "dilute and dispose" (D&D) program to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium, with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico as the final repository for this plutonium. On May 14, NNSA issued a partial stop-work order to its MFFF construction contractor, effective immediately.

The changes in the pit production mandate have been questioned in Congress. On May 15, the House Armed Services Committee issued a report on the House's draft National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2019 (H.R.5515) asking for clarification on "whether and why the 2018 NPR [Nuclear Posture Review] has modified the pit production requirement [from at least "50-80" as stated in requirements from 2010, 2014, and 2015, to "80" pits per year now].

The Committee "directs the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of Energy and the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, to submit a report to the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and the House of Representatives by November 30, 2018, on the annual pit production requirement, including any associated timelines. Such report should include a detailed rationale and justification for any changes to the requirement, the drivers behind the requirement, and associated costs. Such report should also include a detailed assessment of the potential to reuse plutonium pits that are currently in the inventory of the United States." (p. 239)

As the leaked executive summary of the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA's) 2017 Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) indicates, there is more to this difference than meets the eye. Whatever confidence level may have attached to the previous "at least" or "a minimum of" "50-80" pits per year, the "high confidence" requirement for "at least" 80 pits per year means, or is interpreted by NNSA to mean, that a future pit production capability must deliver at least 80 War Reserve pits per year in 9 out of 10 production years. The average pit production rate would be higher than 80 pits per year.

H.R. 5515 passed the House on May 24, but not before adopting a bipartisan amendment sponsored by all three New Mexico representatives to require a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) to assess the NNSA's plutonium plans and report to Congress by April 15, 2019, halting implementation of the pit decision in the meantime.

The Senate Armed Services Committee completed its markup of parallel legislation the same day. According to the final Committee report (p. 103):

Within available funds, NNSA is directed to contract with a third-party Federally-Funded Research and Development Corporation to conduct an independent assessment of the NNSA's decision to conduct pit production operations at two sites. NNSA shall identify and execute a contract with an independent FFRDC, not directly involved in plutonium pit production, not later than 60 days after enactment of this act. NNSA shall not proceed with conceptual design activities for the recently announced preferred alternative until an FFRDC is under contract. The assessment shall include an analysis of the four options evaluated in the recent Plutonium Pit Production Engineering Assessment [i.e. three options at LANL and one at SRS], all identified risks, engineering requirements, workforce development requirements, and other factors considered. The FFRDC shall submit its report to the Committees on Appropriations of both the Houses of Congress not later than 210 days after enactment of this act.

The Senate report (pp. 110-111) also aims at impeding the D&D option for surplus plutonium disposal, necessary for NNSA's preferred pit production plan by requiring that:

no later than February 1, 2019, the Department shall submit to the Committees on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress, a plan for obtaining all necessary final state and Federal permits; acquiring independent scientific and technical review of dilute and dispose processes and waste forms to ensure compliance with waste acceptance criteria; defining any legislative changes necessary to accommodate this material and the existing WIPP waste inventory; and outlining any necessary design and construction modifications to the current facility, including cost and schedule impacts of any modifications needed to WIPP facilities or for developing additional repositories.

Given this, and the inherent problems and costs of building and operating plutonium facilities of any kind, plus the previously discussed lack of need for new pits for decades, decisions about pit production are clearly vulnerable to setbacks and reversals.