French company Framatome and the Technical University of Munich will work together to develop of uranium-molybdenum fuel for research reactors. The project will lead to the development of a pilot U-Mo fuel production line at the Cerca Research and Innovation Lab (CRIL). The line is expected to produce first fuel elements for irradiation experiments in 2022. Development of the fuel could potentially allow converting the FRM-II reactor in Munich to LEU fuel.
U.S. Department of Energy submitted an application for a license (XSNM3813) to export 0.3 kg of U-235 to the Joint Research Centre (JRC-Geel) in Belgium. The material will be used in safeguards applications as described in the document:
The JRC-Geel uses the NBL Program Office uranium metal by dissolving them, and splitting them into much smaller samples containing the uranium, and adding plutonium which they source from France (not US plutonium). These small samples containing milligram quantities of uranium and plutonium, called LSD spikes, are Certified Reference Materials (CRM's). The LSD spike CRM's are purchased, mostly by Japan, to be used for material accountability determinations, overseen by the IAEA. These materials and the LSD spikes that are created are required to meet international safeguards agreements. The NBL PO and the IAEA participate in JRC-Geel reviews of these materials, to ensure their suitability for use in meeting accountability and measurement requirements.
UPDATE: The license XSNM3813 was granted on June 18, 2020.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a report that identified the construction site of a reprocessing plant at Jinta, located near Jiuquan city of Gansu province. The construction of the plant, which will have the capacity of 200 MTHM/year, is expected to be completed in 2025.
The Institute for Radioelements (IRE) produced its first commercial batch of Mo-99 from LEU targets. The targets were irradiated in the BR-2 reactor located at SCK-CEN in Mol.
This marks the beginning of transition to LEU targets in Mo-99 production in Europe. Right now, most of Mo-99 is produced in HEU targets, with the material supplied by the United States. The supply, however, is currently contingent on the progress of converting production to LEU.
Alan Kuperman, Frank von Hippel
In February 2020, the US Department of Energy's office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation released its report, Initial Evaluation of Fuel-Reactor Concepts for Advanced LEU Fuel Development, a screening study for potential fuel and reactor types that may be relevant to switching US naval nuclear propulsion away from reliance on highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. The DNN report was commissioned from three DOE national laboratories with reactor-design expertise: Idaho, Oak Ridge and Argonne. It ends up recommending two reactor types and seven fuels for further investigation in the next phase of its work. These options include pressurized water reactors (PWRs), and a number of possible high-density, low enriched uranium (LEU) fuels.
Currently, US and UK naval reactors are fueled by weapon-grade HEU (93.5% U-235). Russia and India also use HEU (≥ 20% U-235). The other two countries with nuclear submarines, China and France, use LEU.
The origin of the new report can be traced to a request from Congress that led in 2014 to the Office of Naval Reactors (NR) submitting to Congress a Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores (see also an earlier IPFM post). In comparison to a report on the same topic written in 1995, the 2014 report was quite positive:
recent work has shown that the potential exists to develop an advanced fuel system that could increase uranium loading beyond what is practical today while meeting the rigorous performance requirements for naval reactors. Success is not assured, but an advanced fuel system might ... allow using LEU fuel with less impact on reactor lifetime, size, and ship costs.
The Congressional interest was in whether it might be possible to expand a longstanding US-led nonproliferation initiative, aimed at ending worldwide civilian use of HEU in research-reactor fuel and medical isotope production, to encompass all non-weapon uses of HEU, including those of the military. The benefits would include eliminating the possibility of theft of HEU from the naval fuel cycle, which has happened in the past in both the US and Russia. They also include making it more difficult for countries such as Iran to justify production of HEU for their planned naval reactors. Brazil, the only non-nuclear-weapons state currently with a nuclear submarine development program is working with LEU fuel.
Congress responded to the 2014 NR report by appropriating $5 million in FY16 to commence R&D of LEU fuel for Navy propulsion reactors. In 2016, DOE submitted a report, Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel (see IPFM blog post), laying out a 15-year, $1 billion, program to develop Navy LEU fuel:
Development of an advanced naval fuel that uses LEU would demonstrate United States leadership toward reducing HEU and achieving nuclear non-proliferation goals...The advanced LEU fuel system concept has the potential to satisfy the energy requirements of an aircraft carrier without affecting the number of refuelings ... An LEU-fueled submarine with this fuel is expected to require at least one refueling, or the reactor (and hull) would need to be increased in size correspondingly ... For these reasons, an LEU-fueled submarine reactor is a larger challenge which would not be addressed until experience could be gained during the development of an LEU-fueled aircraft carrier reactor.
Congress provided another $5 million for FY17 but the members that were interested in LEU fuel indicated that they wanted NR to pursue LEU fuel options for submarines as well. It was understood that reactor cores sufficient to power submarines for their full design lives - a long-term NR goal which it believed that it had finally achieved in the Virginia-class attack submarine, which has begun deployment and is in ongoing production - might have to be larger if LEU fuel were used, which might require a reconfiguration of the reactor compartment in subsequent classes of submarines.
NR failed to spend the first two years' of funding for Navy LEU fuel R&D, so Congress appropriated another $5 million for FY18 but transferred the project to DOE's Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation (DNN), and asked the Secretaries of the Navy and Energy to make a joint determination on the program (NDAA FY2018 Conference Report, § 7319, see also an IPFM post). In March 2018, the Secretaries of Energy and the Navy responded negatively, writing to the Committees on Armed Services that:
Funding developmental work of this magnitude is not possible without increasing risk to other existing naval nuclear propulsion efforts. A program to pursue R&D of an LEU advanced fuel system would compete for necessary resources against all other NNSA and Department of Defense priorities as part of a future budget request.
Nevertheless, Congressional advocates of Navy LEU fuel were undeterred and actually increased FY19 funding to $10 million in DNN's budget (p. 167). An additional $15 million was provided in FY20 (p. H11262), and DNN tasked DOE's three civilian laboratories with reactor-design expertise, led by Idaho National Laboratory (INL), to look into the matter.
Although the FY19 funding was explicitly for an "advanced naval nuclear fuel system," which was the language that NR had used in its 2016 report on LEU fuel for aircraft carriers and submarines, DNN was apparently concerned about being seen as intruding on NR turf. The report therefore describes the research as looking at concepts for "off-grid power sources for ship-borne systems and transportable systems to fixed locations, e.g., to a remote base or to a seawater desalination service location" - all possible applications other than the one that Congress had provided funding to research.
Reactor types. The labs chose to focus on a reactor sized to generate 100 Megawatts electric (MWe) for 30 years operating at a 20-percent average capacity factor. The power is about the geometric mean between public estimates of the power outputs of US submarine and aircraft carrier reactors. The capacity factor agrees with estimates for naval reactors if one takes into account the time that ships spend in port and the fact that they usually do not move at maximum speed. (Water resistance increases as the cube of speed. At 80 percent of maximum speed, the propulsive power required is therefore cut in half.) The 30-year life is between the 25-year core life for the two reactors on US Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and the 33-year design life of Virginia-class submarines, which have lifetime cores (p. 10). The reactor was also required to have "rapid and repeated load following capability from 0 to 100% power without rate or restart constraints due to Xe poisoning and other effects," which is appropriate for a military ship (p. 2).
The two reactor types recommended for further study are pressurized water reactors (PWRs), the current type used by all nuclear navies, and liquid-sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors (SFRs), a reactor type that INL and Argonne National Laboratory have been promoting as an advanced power reactor.
The legendary leader of the US naval-reactor development, Admiral Hyman Rickover, actually tried an SFR in his second nuclear submarine, the Seawolf (SSN 575) but replaced the reactor with a PWR after about a year. According to the historians of the founding of the US nuclear navy, Rickover's verdict about sodium-cooled reactors was that they were
expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair. (Nuclear Navy: 1946-1962, p. 274.)
The Soviet Union also tried closely-related liquid-metal (lead-bismuth) cooled reactors in eight attack submarines: one November-class submarine, the K-27, which went into service in 1963 but was retired after five years as a result of a reactor accident and seven Alfa-class submarines, which went into service during 1971 and 1981 and were retired in 1996. One of the Alphas also had a serious reactor accident (The Use of Highly-Enriched Uranium as Fuel in Russia, p. 94).
Fuel type. For the enrichment of the LEU fuel, the lab study chose 19.75%, just below the 20% boundary line above which enriched uranium is considered weapon usable. It is believed US naval reactor fuel is ceramic UO2 particles embedded in zirconium metal ("cermet") (Effects of Variation of Uranium Enrichment on Nuclear Submarine Reactor Design, p. 65).
The labs narrowed down their candidate fuels to seven. The top four are UO2 (the "benchmark"), a uranium-molybdenum alloy (7-10 weight percent molybdenum), USi3 and uranium metal alloyed with 2% molybdenum and 1% silicon (Si). These compounds have uranium densities about 50% higher than UO2, which could theoretically result in the possibility of packing the same amount of uranium into a core with about two thirds of the volume of fuel. This would reduce the volume penalty from converting to a lower enrichment of U-235.
The volume penalty is further reduced because it is not necessary to have the same amount of U-235 to achieve the same core life, as during irradiation some of the U-238 in the LEU fuel is fissioned and some is converted into chain-reacting plutonium, some of which is later fissioned. In its 1995 report to Congress, NR reported that, because of these contributions, only two-thirds as much U-235 would be required at 20 percent enrichment as at 93% (Report on Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Naval Propulsion, p. 10). This effect, combined with a 50% increase of uranium density in the fuel would result in an LEU core having twice the volume of an HEU core for the same core life.
A life-of-the-ship LEU core might still require a larger reactor pressure vessel and a modest increase in submarine length to provide additional buoyancy to offset the increased weight of the reactor compartment. Alternatively, the Navy could revert to mid-life refueling, the traditional practice for pre-Virginia class submarines that still comprise the bulk of the fleet. France's navy, which has excellent nuclear submarines, has designed them to be refueled in weeks rather than years as the US does, which is an approach that could address the US Navy's main objection to refueling. Aircraft carrier reactor pressure vessels may be already large enough to accommodate a larger LEU core. DOE's 2016 report to Congress stated that, "Preliminary design work has shown that an initial application of LEU fuel in an aircraft carrier reactor might meet ship performance requirements in the available size envelope."
The recent February 2020 report is the first from DOE's advanced-LEU (aLEU) Fuel for Nonproliferation Applications Project that includes reactor modeling and experimental work on the candidate fuels. The project aims eventually "to offer a candidate LEU fuel system" for seaborne applications consistent with the reactor performance requirements. This project is housed in DNN's office of Research and Development and is the military counterpart to the longstanding civilian LEU fuel development program, the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program established in 1978, which is based in DNN's office of Material Management and Minimization.
Russia's nuclear regulatory body, Rostekhnadzor, extended the operating license of the BN-600 fast-neutron reactor until 2025. The current license, which was set to expire this year, was issued in 2010.
The reactor has been in operation since 1981. The Beloyarsk plant, which operates the reactor, is developing a project that could allow the reactor to operate until 2040.
On 6 March 2020, India's Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change released a report in which it "hopes that the [Department of Atomic Energy] would be in a position to commission the fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam by the end of 2021." The report also recognized that if this schedule were to be met it would have taken almost two decades for commissioning to take place.
The construction of the reactor, known as Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor or PFBR, began in 2004. It was initially expected to be commissioned in 2010, but that date has been repeatedly delayed - in 2010 until 2012, in 2012 until 2013, in 2014 until March 2015, in 2016 until March 2017, in February 2017 until October 2017, in November 2017 until mid-2018, and in September 2018 until 2019.
Initially, the reasons for the delay had to do with problems with plutonium production and fuel fabrication. However, for the last several years, the commissioning of the reactor has been held back by problems with sodium pumps.
The cost of the project is estimated to be Rs. 68.4 billion (approximately $4 billion at PPP), which is almost twice the original cost of Rs. 34.92 billion.
Frank N. von Hippel
The U.S. Department of Energy published its Congressional Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2021. The items below appear in Volume 1, which covers nuclear weapon activities, defense nuclear nonproliferation and naval reactors, and Volume 3, Part 2, which includes nuclear power.
Plutonium pit production (Volume 1, pp. 162, 193-205). In its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the Trump Administration proposed that the US establish a capacity to produce at least 80 plutonium pits for nuclear weapons per year by 2030. Congress has agreed and appropriated $407 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 and $798 million in FY2020. In the FY2021 budget. DOE proposes an increase to $1.369 billion.
Plutonium pits are the cores of the fission triggers of modern thermonuclear weapons. The US has not had an industrial-scale pit production capacity since the end of the Cold War. The capability to produce pits was preserved at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which produced 29 "war-reserve" pits from 2007 through 2012. This low capacity has not been considered a serious problem until recently since a JASON Group review of DOE work concluded that "Most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium". The oldest pit currently in the US operational stockpile is approximately 40 years old.
The only immediate need for pits is associated with a proposal to replace the W78 warhead on the US Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile with a new warhead, the W87-1, that will contain insensitive high explosive (IHE). All US warheads are already "one-point safe," i.e. if the explosive around the pit were detonated at one point by, for example, a bullet, there would be no significant nuclear yield. The IHE would reduce the probability of a plutonium dispersal incident, however.
Each of the 400 Minuteman III missiles carries one warhead. Half the deployed warheads are W87s, which already contain IHE. There reportedly are 540 W87s - enough to replace the W78s but the DOD-DOE Nuclear Weapons Council decided to newly produce a variant of the W87, the W87-1, to replace the W78. The usual logic is to have two types of warheads available per missile in case a problem develops with one of them but the W87-1 would have the same fission "primary" as the W87, the component upon which concerns about reliability usually focus.
The W87-1 is also being considered as a replacement for the W88, one of the two warheads on the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile. The Trump Administration also has proposed to begin designing another new warhead for the Trident II. The new warhead is to be called the W93. Neither of the two warheads currently carried by Trident II, the W76 and the W88, contains IHE. Replacing them and the W78 would complete the transition of the US warhead stockpile to IHE. In the past, however, the navy has rejected replacing the W76 and the W88 with IHE-containing warheads as an unnecessary costly project because, unlike the Air Force, which has had nuclear-armed bombers crash and burn, the navy has never had a plutonium dispersal accident. Nevertheless, the nuclear weapon laboratories have persisted in pushing for three decades for replacement warheads containing IHE as the only rationale for designing new warheads and have finally found a friendly administration. Indeed, the Trump Administration proposes to increase the weapons budget at Los Alamos by 50% or $1 billion to $2.9 billion in FY2021. Lawrence Livermore has received a 33 percent boost in its own weapons budget since FY2019 to $1.8 billion.
NNSA plans to make the pits at two locations: Los Alamos National Laboratory's Plutonium Facility-4 (PF-4), whose production capacity would be increased to 30 pits/year, and the DOE's Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina where a new facility would have a design capacity of 50 pits/year. At SRS, an abandoned multi-billion dollar building that was originally built to turn excess US plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX, uranium-plutonium) fuel for US power reactors would be adapted for pit production.
DOE estimates the cost for the Savannah River plutonium production facility as $4.6 billion and the cost of 'plutonium modernization' at Los Alamos at $5.4 billion for FY21-25. There is no estimate yet for the total cost of reaching a production capacity of 30 pits/year at Los Alamos. Given all the safety issues that have been encountered at Los Alamos' plutonium facility, however, these costs are likely to grow as the schedules slip.
Dilution and Disposal of Excess Plutonium (Volume 1, pp. 658-664). The Trump Administration has committed to the Obama Administration's proposal to blend down US excess plutonium and dispose of it in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. The FY21 budget request is for about $0.15 billion and projects a total of $0.62-0.71 billion to set up for processing 1.5 tons of plutonium per year at the Savannah River Site.
DOE's current plan for disposal of its 57.1 tons excess plutonium is to start with up to 6 tons of plutonium that is already in oxide form, dilute it with a mix of chemicals from which it would be difficult to recover, and dispose of the mix in the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), a deep repository in a salt bed in New Mexico. The excess plutonium that is already in oxide form is stored in the former K-reactor building at the DOE's Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. Disposal of this plutonium is being prioritized because of an overdue commitment to the State of South Carolina that the plutonium would be removed from the state. The plan is to carry out the dilution operation at a rate of 1.5 tons per year in three gloveboxes that are to be installed in the K-reactor building. Disposition operations would begin in 2028 at an estimated annual cost of $58.3 million. After the disposal of this plutonium, there is an additional 43.8 tons of excess plutonium in pits and other metal forms that would have to be converted to oxide before dilution. (The remaining 7 tons of excess plutonium is in spent fuel.) The plan has been to do that conversion at Los Alamos National Laboratory's troubled PF-4 facility (see item on pit production above) but Congress' Government Accountability Office has questioned the credibility of expanding both pit production and plutonium oxidization in the same aging facility.
Versatile test reactor (VTR) (Volume 3, pp. 104-117). DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy has requested $295 million (up from $65 million in FY2020) to build a liquid-sodium-cooled test reactor at the Idaho National Lab (INL). The design would be based on INL's Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which the Clinton Administration shut down in 1994 for lack of mission. DOE's initial cost estimate for the VTR is $3 to $6 billion and its goal is to complete the reactor during 2026-30.
The need for the VTR is questionable. The $295 million requested in FY2021 is a quarter of DOE's total proposed budget for nuclear energy research and development. At a constant budget level, that share would have to increase to about half even if the cost estimate does not increase. In fact, the budget appears to anticipate a zero-sum competition between the VTR and the other parts of DOE's budget for nuclear energy, proposing elimination of many programs, including programs supportive of the development of the new types of power reactors that were used to justify the VTR.
Development of LEU fuel for naval reactors (Volume 1, p. 643). After at first welcoming Congressional interest in the development of LEU fuel for its naval reactors, DOE's Office of Naval Reactors is resisting. Congress has funded this program every year starting in FY2016. DOE proposes to zero out that effort.
In 1994 and again in 2012, Congress asked the Office of Naval Reactors (ONR) about the feasibility of designing future US naval-propulsion reactors to use low-enriched instead of weapon-grade uranium. The response in 1995 was that this would require the office to give up its long-term goal of equipping US nuclear submarines with lifetime cores, a goal it believes that it has achieved with the Virginia-class attack submarines that are currently being produced and the Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarines that are currently being designed. In 2014, ONR suggested that the problem might be mitigated by the development of higher-density fuels and, in 2016, it proposed an R&D program to develop and test such fuels.
Subsequently, the navy turned against the effort, however, and, in 2018, the Secretaries of Energy and the Navy wrote a joint letter to Congress stating that "we have jointly determined that the United States should not pursue Research and Development (R&D) of an advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU)". Congressional supporters of LEU fuel development responded by shifting funding to a line item for "nonproliferation fuels development" in the NNSA's office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, which has tasked three of DOE's civilian laboratories (Argonne, Oak Ridge and Idaho National Laboratories) to do the research. In FY2020, Congress funded the program at a level of $15 million dollars, but the Trump Administration has asked for zero funding for FY2021.
More DOE Funding for Centrus corporation? (Volume 1, pp. 585-592, 604-612). The Trump Administration proposes to fund the development of domestic enrichment out of nonproliferation funds.
In DOE's FY2020 budget request, the Office of Nuclear Energy proposed a $115 million contract with Centrus corporation to install 16 centrifuges at the DOE's Piketon facility to demonstrate the production of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) for some of the small modular power reactors that the Office is promoting. This caused controversy since DOE signed the contract without Congressional authorization and the funds were obtained in part by cutting support for university research in nuclear engineering. Also, URENCO-USA has expressed a willingness to produce HALEU at a tiny fraction of the cost of the Centrus project (see the earlier IPFM post). In the FY2021 budget request, the Office of Nuclear Energy promises not to spend beyond the $115 million contract (Volume 3-2, p. 49) but a $71 million increase has appeared in the Defense Nonproliferation program part of DOE's budget, specifically in the "material management and minimization" program that has in the past been used to convert research reactors fueled with highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to LEU and to retrieve HEU and plutonium from around the world. The justification for the $71 million increase is that it
"supports [Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation's] contribution to the Office of Defense Program's (DP) domestic uranium enrichment project, which includes a high-assay low-enriched uranium (LEU) requirement [and for other programs]."
The share of the $71 million going to the "enrichment project" and whether that project is Centrus is not specified. In the meantime, Defense Programs, whose program Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation claims to be supporting, is still considering options for its future needs of enriched uranium to fuel US tritium production and naval reactors after 2041 and 2060 respectively (Volume 1, pp. 180-81).
by Frank von Hippel
Andrew Griffith, deputy assistant energy secretary for the nuclear fuel cycle and supply chain in DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, is reported to have announced at a recent seminar on spent fuel management that the office is exploring a reprocessing initiative that would start on a small scale.
This initiative may be driven in part by Congressional frustration with a lack of progress on spent fuel disposal since the Obama Administration defunded the Yucca Mountain radioactive-waste repository in 2010. Under a heading, "used nuclear fuel disposition R&D," the December 2019 conference report on the Energy and Water Appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2020 (p. 38) ordered the DOE to "report on innovative options for disposition of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel management" and to commission a report by the National Academies on "the merits and viability of different nuclear fuel cycles and technology options."
In 2006, the previous Republican Administration under George W. Bush made a major effort to launch a US reprocessing program. Reprocessing advocates at Argonne National Laboratory argued that the US would never require a second repository if the transuranic elements were removed from spent fuel and fissioned in fast-neutron reactors, reducing the long-term heat load from the radionuclides in spent fuel. The Bush Administration embraced this idea and proposed a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership in which the nuclear-weapon states and Japan would reprocess the world's spent fuel and build fast-neutron reactors to fission the recovered plutonium. France's fuel cycle company, AREVA, made similar arguments and began to negotiate a deal with the Bush Administration to sell the US a very large reprocessing plant. The leadership of DOE even told Congress that reprocessing would cost the government less than reimbursing US nuclear utilities for the storage casks that they were buying because of the delay of a national repository. In 2007, the IPFM laid out the actual costs and proliferation dangers in a report, Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing. This report provided the basis for many Congressional briefings and Congress's support for construction of a reprocessing plant waned.
In parallel, the idea of fast-neutron reactors is being revived by enthusiasts at the Idaho National Laboratory where Experiment Breeder Reactors I and II (EBR I and II) were built in the 1950s and 1960s. In its appropriations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, Congress provided $65 million for Conceptual Design Phase I of a sodium-cooled fast-neutron Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) (p. 39). This is the same amount Congress appropriated in FY 2019. The Trump Administration had requested (p. 279) a $35 million increase at the same time that it proposed a 38 percent cut in the DOE's overall budget for nuclear energy research and development, a decrease that Congress turned into an increase of 13 percent (p. 36).
The VTR design is based on that of INL's Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which the Clinton Administration shut down in 1994 as the last step in the termination of US breeder reactor research and development. That termination began two decades earlier in the Ford and Carter Administrations after India used plutonium from its US-supported breeder reactor program for a test nuclear explosion in 1974. The Ford and Carter Administrations launched reviews that concluded that, in addition to the proliferation liabilities associated with plutonium recycle, sodium-cooled breeder reactors would not be economically competitive with light water reactors operating on a once-through fuel cycle.
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).