US plutonium pit production plans fail to satisfy Congress; further studies underway

by Greg Mello

The US Department of Energy (DOE)'s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recommended strategy for resuming industrial-scale production of plutonium pits for nuclear weapons remains uncertain - more so than 6 months ago.

Congressional defense committees did not fully accept the NNSA-Department of Defense (DoD) strategy and wrote new requirements. Appropriations committees questioned NNSA's plan to use pits from the first decade's production in a new warhead. The Senate required an unclassified review of pit lifetimes. At least five new studies bearing on pit production are underway or pending, with completion dates ranging to early 2020.

NNSA's 2017 Plutonium Pit Production Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) and its 2018 Plutonium Pit Production Engineering Assessment (EA) both warned that construction and operation of an 80 pit-per-year (ppy) capability by 2030 would be difficult. Congress has yet to grapple with the engineering issues raised in those two reports.

Pit production in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act

Section 3120 of the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), added to the bill in a floor amendment (pp. 12, 232) sponsored by the combined New Mexico delegation, modified and delayed NNSA's industrial-scale pit strategy by:

  • Making Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) the "Plutonium Science and Production Center of Excellence" (emphasis added) for the US. The latter is a new and challenging mission for LANL, which has struggled to keep its limited pit capabilities operating.
  • Requiring NNSA to "implement surge efforts [at LANL] to exceed 30 ppy to meet Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] and [unstated] national policy." NNSA's AoA and EA warn in strong terms of the risks to other plutonium programs sharing the same LANL facility that are inherent in attempting to push LANL production beyond 30 ppy, for example with multiple labor shifts, in the absence of new facilities.
  • Requiring a new study on pit production strategies (p. 658), the third in as many years, to be managed by the Pentagon (instead of NNSA, though in coordination) and conducted by a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC). No investment in lasting production scaled to the current stockpile can occur until the results of this study have been reviewed by Congress and the Administration and subsequently incorporated into plans and budgets.
  • The Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) has been chosen to do this review (as well as a parallel review for NNSA required by the Senate Energy and Water Development (EWD) Appropriations Report; see p. 103). The review must assess the risks and benefits of the four EA options, as well as review the prior AoA. It must assess NNSA's proposed methods to reduce risks. It must include review of a strategy to manufacture "up to 80 pits per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory through the use of multiple labor shifts and additional equipment at PF-4 [Plutonium Facility Building 4 in Technical Area 55] until modular facilities are completed to provide a long-term, single shift capacity." NNSA's two studies did not support either a surge or modular LANL facilities (AoA Executive Summary p. 2; EA Congressional Briefing, slide 12).
  • Requiring NNSA to assess possible conflict between industrial pit production and LANL's other plutonium missions, including processing of 26 metric tons of surplus pits to produce plutonium dioxide for disposal. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is to review NNSA's assessment.
  • Requiring NNSA to produce two detailed plans for pit production at LANL, one for production of 30 ppy by 2026, the other for "designing and carrying out production of plutonium pits 31-80" by 2030 in case the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, is not "operational and producing pits" by then, a challenging deadline, especially at LANL (AoA Executive Summary p. 2; EA Congressional Briefing, slides 8-9); and by
  • Requiring the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) to annually certify that the plan to produce 80 ppy by 2030 is "on track," and requiring NNSA to produce "either a concurrent backup plan or a recovery plan" to get back on schedule if certification is not forthcoming.

New study on plutonium aging and the lifetime of plutonium pits

The FY2019 Senate EWD Report (p. 104) requires NNSA to contract with the JASON defense analysis group for another study, this one to assess

... plutonium aging and the lifetime of plutonium pits in nuclear weapons.... Not later than 18 months after the date of enactment of this act [i.e. by March 2020], the Administrator shall submit to Congress a report on the findings...[including] recommendations...for improving the knowledge, understanding, and application of the fundamental and applied sciences related to the study of plutonium aging and pit lifetimes, an estimate of minimum and likely lifetimes for pits in current warheads, and the feasibility of reusing pits in modified nuclear weapons. The report shall be submitted in unclassified form but may include a classified annex.

Appropriations committee reports, while not statutory law, are treated "almost as seriously" (p. 1). In cases where one committee's report language is acceptable to both committees, the conference report may be silent "due to an expectation that the agency will follow the original directive." (p. 5) Such is the case here.

This will be the first unclassified assessment of pit lifetimes since the 2008 joint DoD-DOE appraisal that stated that the minimum pit lifetime was "85-100 years" from manufacture.

According to congressional sources, NNSA is meanwhile nearing completion of a classified in-house study of pit aging, conducted by NNSA's Defense Programs Advisory Committee (DPAC).

Pits, interoperable warheads and Life Extension Programs

The near-term requirement for new pits is also being questioned indirectly, by questioning the only warhead that needs them. NNSA's FY2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP) of October 2018 does not include interoperable warheads (IWs) except as studies (pp. 2-13, 14), continuing the Trump Administration's Nuclear Posture Review policy (p. 61) of terminating the Obama Administration's IW1 program in favor of a W78 Life Extension Program (LEP).

IW1 was NNSA's only pre-2040 warhead program that required new pits. IW1 began in FY2013-14 (p. 8-36) but has been on hold since then, in part due to strong Navy disinterest. The proposed W78 LEP would, like IW1, use new pits (p. 2-13) to accommodate insensitive high explosive (IHE). A "W78 LEP" with "all newly manufactured components" is simply the Air Force portion of the IW1. Sources say it may soon be called the "W87-1."

Like the IW1 (p. 10), the new-pit W78 LEP would be based on the W87 and use a "W87-like" pit. The W87 is the only ballistic-missile warhead with IHE, and the Plutonium Sustainment program has been solely focused (p. 2-30) on producing "W87-like" pits in the 2020s. The new-pit W78 LEP plan assumes adequate availability of such pits for first W78 production in FY2030 (p. 4-42).

The final EWD Appropriations bill largely followed the earlier lead of the House (p. 109) in questioning any such program (Conference Report, p. 165):

[T]he NNSA is directed to provide to the Committees on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress, not later than 60 days after the enactment of this Act and prior to commencement of phase 6.2, a report that provides the rationale for an insensitive-high explosive (IHE)-based system, an updated estimate of the cost and schedule for warhead development and production, and a rough order of magnitude cost and schedule comparison of the differences between the requested IW and a W76 LEP-like refurbishment of the W78 [i.e. a W78 LEP without IHE and a new pit]. Further, the NNSA shall initiate an independent review by the Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation (CEPE) of the analysis of alternatives process conducted as part of the life extension study of the W78 to assess objectivity, thoroughness, and adherence to the Government Accountability Office recommended best practices, in accordance with current NNSA policy.

Not later than 180 days after the enactment of this Act, the NNSA shall provide to the Committees on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress a report that includes the following: (1) the results of the CEPE review; (2) a cost and schedule estimate to refurbish the W78 warhead in a manner similar to the W76 LEP; (3) a cost estimate for any needed upgrades to Department of Defense facilities to fully satisfy safety requirements for handling conventional high explosives; (4) impacts to the IW/W78 LEP if pit production targets are not met; and (5) the certification strategy for the IW/W78 LEP that addresses issues raised by the JASONs group in its review of certification risks for an IW with IHE and remanufactured pits.

The "issues raised by the JASONs" included warnings that: a) warhead modifications to incorporate IHE "may force a reduction in design yield margins" (p. 6), and b) certification of the nuclear explosive package (NEP) as well as of the reentry vehicle [RV] could be difficult. Sources suggest that dozens of flight tests could be required to determine the accuracy of the modified RV.

Given the technical risks, schedule challenges, and great expense (estimated by NNSA at $19.5 billion, including $4.4 billion in DoD costs, plus pit production) (p. 4-42), and the risk to NNSA's plutonium facilities and programs entailed by "surge" production in old facilities, the W78 "new pit option" may not survive. Of note, the majority of warheads in the US arsenal - those deployed by the Navy - will continue to use conventional high explosive for at least the next 25 years.

Another option is to retire the W78. As the JASONs note (p. 5), "multiple diverse designs that meet the same requirements provide little benefit over a single high-confidence design," in this case the existing W87. Another option is to retire some or all US ground-based ballistic missiles.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is completing a review of the IW1/W78 LEP program pursuant to July 2017 requirement (p. 360). GAO will issue a report this fall reviewing NNSA's IW1/W78 LEP planning and management, including infrastructure, equipment, and personnel.

Funding and setting pit production requirements

Congress did provide ample funding for pit production. The final EWD bill funds the "Plutonium Sustainment" budget line at the requested level ($361 million), a 71% increase over FY2018 spending and the first step in what the administration proposes (pp. 60, 63) to be a dramatic ramp-up to $1.2 billion per year by 2023.

Within this budget, the Conference directs NNSA to break out a "Plutonium Pit Production Project," (pp. 165-166, 178), and funds this new project for FY2019 at $75 million. This structure aims at greater accountability for what is already a large program.

The "mission need" - "Critical Decision Zero" (CD-0) in Department of Energy (DOE) parlance - for "50-80" ppy pit production was approved on 25 November 2015. In June 2017, the Mission Need Statement (MNS) and Program Requirements Document (PRD) prepared in support of CD-0 approval were "updated" (p.3) to reflect a new requirement of at least 80 ppy.

Pit production desires have changed several times over the past 15 years.

Also in June 2017, perhaps in the CD-0, the NNSA Program Secretarial Officer - in this case, the Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs - formally determined (p. 76) that continuing to rely on PF-4 for enduring pit production capability presented "unacceptably high mission risk" for two reasons: a) efforts to install equipment in PF-4 beyond what is already planned under the Plutonium Sustainment program present unacceptably high risks to achieving 30 ppy production by 2026; and b) PF-4 is much smaller than is required for stockpile pit production, even if missions such as plutonium dioxide production and plutonium-238 manufacturing were somehow relocated. Both the AoA (p. 36, footnote 13; pp. 47-48) and EA (p. 2-54) emphasize the age and operational fragility of PF-4.

CD-1 ("Approve Alternative Selection and Cost Range"), which requires many prior studies (pp. A-6 through A-8), is not expected until December 2019 (p. 3-17), assuming NNSA had made a decision as to its overall pit production strategy by the end of FY2018. But NNSA did not. The agency made a recommendation in May, and Congress intervened.

The Senate Appropriations Committee barred (p. 103) NNSA from beginning conceptual design to implement its two-site pit production strategy at Los Alamos and Savannah River until an FFRDC was under contract to review the pit strategy. That review contract began no earlier than September 21, when the bill containing EWD appropriations became law. The IDA team conducting the pit strategy review for DoD told the author in November 2018 they were also doing the review for NNSA. The review for NNSA is due 210 days after enactment (p. 103), i.e. April 19, 2019, four days after the similar DoD review is due on The Hill.

Unless for some reason these reports are delivered early, NNSA cannot make an alternative selection for pit production until sometime after April 2019. Congress will use the reports it requested, along with other information, to fashion FY2020 authorizations and appropriations. The future of the IW1/W78 LEP/W87-1 warhead, as well as anticipation of an updated JASON review on pit aging, may influence congressional and subsequent NNSA decisions - including regarding mission need.

Environmental impact statement

NNSA must also vet the environmental impacts of all reasonable pit production alternatives under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) prior to undertaking actions that prejudice the agency's decision or irreversibly commit resources (general overview in this context, p. 28). The Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) wrote NNSA in April 2018 pointing out that any proposed NNSA decision to produce pits at any site besides LANL, and at LANL at a rate exceeding 20 ppy, would contravene prior decisions and exceed the parameters of prior analysis, requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Any contemplated decision to produce more than 50 ppy at LANL, or a contemplated decision to produce pits at any site other than LANL, would require a Programmatic EIS (PEIS).

Subsequently three other organizations - Tri-Valley CAREs (TVC), Nuclear Watch of New Mexico (NWNM), and Savannah River Site Watch (SRSW) - wrote NNSA and congressional parties making similar and further points, in particular pointing to a legal settlement (in which LASG and TVC were parties) in which DOE agreed to produce a Supplemental PEIS (SPEIS) prior to proceeding to "detailed engineering design" (p. S-2) for any proposal to produce pits at a rate greater than 50 ppy under "routine" (single-shift) circumstances. That is the case (pp. 3, 13) for the present proposal. NNSA began such an SPEIS in 2003 but never completed it. The EA critical path analyses (appendices I-L) would begin "detailed engineering design" as soon as FY2019.

Pits, the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility and LANL

In line with the results of the AoA and EA analyses, NNSA's May 10 recommendation was that the bulk of post-2029 pit production should occur at a repurposed MFFF. In that regard, appropriations conferees slashed (p. 181) FY2019 MFFF construction funding by more than one-third from FY2018, from $335 million to $220 million. The latter was the amount requested by the administration to continue orderly project termination (p. 524), to conclude in FY2021.

On October 9, NNSA's plan to terminate the MOX plant was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. At least 600 MOX employees, about one-third of the workforce, will be laid off on 7 January 2019, with the rest to follow on an as-yet-unspecified schedule.

For all their differences, both the AoA (p. 9) and the EA (p. 8) found that refurbishing MFFF was NNSA's least capital-cost, fastest, and in the EA, least-risk option for stockpile pit production by 2030 and thereafter. Neither recommended building underground production "modules" at LANL, the strategy endorsed by the NWC in 2014 and retained for special study in the new NDAA despite these two analyses, as noted above. Neither study recommended building any new facilities at LANL that would be dependent on PF-4. Both acknowledged in different ways that PF-4 was fragile, with a limited life. The EA recommendation did not include any LANL construction (p. 12).

The dates projected for an operational 50 or 80 ppy facility (adding a year for the new studies), are 2030-2037 (AoA, p. 9) and 2032-2036 (EA, p. 8).

In the AoA, attempts to achieve multi-shift production at LANL were deemed too risky to retain for further analysis (text above; p. 76). The EA (p. 8, summary; pp. 4-22, 23, details) gave the alternative requiring multi-shift operations in PF-4 the highest risk, in part for that reason.

Taking these results on board, it seems NNSA has no viable options for significant stockpile pit production in the 2020s, and almost certainly cannot meet its 2030 deadline for an operational 80 ppy capability.