Plutonium pit budget request: another massive increase expected

by Greg Mello

The Trump administration is expected to submit its fiscal year 2021 (FY21) budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to Congress on February 10. Defense News reports that a Republican congressional delegation including twelve senators, has convinced President Trump to request $20 billion (B) for NNSA in FY21, far more than the $17.5 B that was pending and 20% more than the current NNSA appropriation of $16.7 B. It would be a 63% increase (in constant dollars 46%) over the FY17 NNSA appropriation of $12.9 B, the last one crafted in the Obama administration.

Within NNSA, the "Plutonium Sustainment" request - principally, for warhead core ("pit") production - is likely to be roughly $1 B for FY21. Last year NNSA projected $977 million (M) for FY21 - five times what was projected in 2016 for FY21 and more than four times average spending in the 2000-2018 period, in constant dollars. The FY20 request of $712 M was fully funded (e-p. 14).

There will be new details. Appropriators have required (e-p. 86) that the acquisition of new pit production capacity at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the Savannah River Site (SRS) be placed in a more accountable "project" structure. Schedules and yearly costs are expected in the forthcoming budget request.

The JASON study of pit aging required by Senate appropriators (p. 104) is underway but as of December 20, 2019, had not been received. Meanwhile a "letter report" commissioned by NNSA on related topics and dated November 23, 2019 has been released.

The JASON letter adds little new information to the open literature. The letter affirms JASON's 2006 conclusions, endorsed by DoD and DOE, that "the present assessments of aging do not indicate any impending issues for the stockpile." They add that "studies on Pu aging and its impacts on the performance of nuclear-weapon primaries have not been sufficiently prioritized over the past decade."

That NNSA dropped the ball on this is puzzling. In this context it is worth noting that in a December 2012 letter to congressional staff LANL wrote, "Pit production to replace pits in the deployed stockpile due to plutonium aging is not required, nor is it planned to occur."

The JASON letter report concludes with this strange statement:

A significant period of time will be required to recreate the facilities and expertise needed to manufacture Pu pits. Given the number and age distribution of weapons in the stockpile, it will then include some eighty-year-old pits, even under most favorable circumstances.

The "most favorable circumstances" for replacing stockpile pits could lead to replacement starting either in 2026, when LANL is required to produce 30 pits for the stockpile, or in 2030, when NNSA is required to produce at least 80 pits. Any pit 80 years old in 2026 or 2030 was made in 1946 or 1950, respectively. There are no such pits in the stockpile. The oldest B61 bombs (and their pits) were first produced in 1966; most - including the pits likely deployed today, were made later (U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History, Chuck Hansen, Orion Books, 1988, pp. 166-168).