U.S. plutonium pit production plans advance, with new requirements

by Greg Mello

The fiscal year (FY) 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, S. 1790) and appropriations for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) programs (H.R. 1865, in Division C) fully authorized and funded (e-p. 101) the Trump Administration's $712.44 million request for plutonium warhead core ("pit") production ("Plutonium Sustainment") at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the Savannah River Site (SRS). New requirements were added, however.

The FY2020 NDAA gave statutory force to the Administration's requirement to produce, "during 2030, not less than 80 war reserve plutonium pits" (§3116, pp. 754-5). A prior requirement to demonstrate, for 90 days, an 80 pit per year (ppy) production rate by 2027 was stricken.

Congress also imposed new reporting and management requirements. Appropriation committees now require (e-p. 86) quarterly progress briefings on LANL's progress in achieving an initial capacity of 10 ppy (required by 2024), on the two sites' projects to acquire capacity beyond 10 ppy, and on how lessons learned from the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) project are being applied to plutonium work.

Appropriators also placed (e-p. 86) the acquisition of pit production capacity at both LANL and SRS under the Department of Energy's (DOE's) project management rules (DOE Order 413.3B). This requires external reviews of cost, safety, and security; analysis of project alternatives and environmental impact before construction can begin (e-pp. 30-34).

Congress expressed again its concerns about the sole proposed warhead which would use new pits, the W87-1. That warhead is scheduled to begin production and deployment in 2030 (e-pp. 79-81) on the proposed Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which would replace the current Minuteman III land-based ballistic missiles. An annual report on GBSD and W87-1 progress - including acquisition and operation of pit production capacity - is required (§31671, pp. 578-9), beginning in February 2020.

Appropriators also require (e-p. 85) a report from NNSA on W87-1 major design decisions, their costs, major risks to the program risks associated contingency plans - including the major risk that pit production will not meet the required schedule. Senate appropriators in 2018 required (p. 104) an assessment by the JASON group of the feasibility of reusing pits in modified nuclear weapons, the minimum and likely lifetimes of plutonium pits in nuclear weapons, and plutonium aging.

Preparations at the two production sites

Sources say roughly $500 M of FY2020's $712 M for pit production preparations will be spent at LANL, with $205 M earmarked for SRS. NNSA's FY2020 budget request includes (p. 122) $410 M for pre- Critical Decision (CD)-1 ("approve alternative selection, cost range") activities at the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF), as the repurposed Mixed Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) is now known.

According to Kelly Cummins, NNSA's Program Executive Officer for Strategic Materials, to reach the planned 30 ppy by 2026, LANL will need to operate its PF-4 plutonium facility with multiple shifts, and LANL will be hiring an additional 1,000 to 1,500 plutonium-related staff to do so. LANL Chief Operating Officer Kelly Beierschmidt said LANL expects to hire 1,400 additional plutonium-related staff over the next five years. At least for now, NNSA's hopes for expanded pit production at LANL rely on multiple shifts rather than additional nuclear facilities.

Safety issues at PF-4 dog NNSA's pit plans for LANL, however. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs and seismic and safety upgrades, LANL's 41-year-old PF-4 facility lacks a completed dynamic seismic analysis and any active "safety-class" (i.e. survivable) systems to protect the public and co-located workers from exposures in the event of an earthquake and fire.

Conflicts with other plutonium programs

In October, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report suggested apparent contradictions between NNSA's surplus plutonium disposition (SPD) program and pit production programs. As summarized in a Los Alamos Study Group review:

  • NNSA has decided that LANL's PF-4 is the only economic location for the oxidation of surplus plutonium metal, of which DOE possesses some 44 tons. NNSA's program of record includes oxidation of 26 tons of surplus pits at LANL.
  • There are strong conflicts between the plutonium oxidation and pit production missions, given the advanced age, limited size, and limiting safety envelope of PF-4. NNSA cannot pursue these two industrial missions simultaneously.
  • NNSA has already prioritized pit production over plutonium oxidation at LANL.