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Plutonium pits are a key component for nuclear weapons, yet the United States’ current capability to produce them is limited.
Due to an evolving geopolitical landscape, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for a revitalization of this capability, stating the United States must “provide the enduring capability and capacity to produce plutonium pits at a rate of no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030.”
Given this imperative, the plutonium pit production mission has become one of the most important in NNSA history.
Leadership from across the Nuclear Security Enterprise came together in February at DOE headquarters to talk about the future of the mission in a panel discussion broadcast to NNSA’s eight labs, plants, and sites. Following an introduction by the event moderator, Cindy Lersten from the NNSA Office of Policy, NNSA Administrator Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty made an unexpected visit to offer words of encouragement for this vital undertaking.
“All of you in this room and on this stage and out in the field – continue to do the great work that you’re doing! We can do anything that we put our minds to because we are NNSA,” said Gordon-Hagerty.
During the Cold War, the Nuclear Security Enterprise was a vast infrastructure that supported a large weapons stockpile. That aging infrastructure now poses a risk to the pit production mission and national security.
“We are at the point that we can no longer wait to re-establish this capability,” said Kelly Cummins, Program Executive Officer for Strategic Materials within NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs. “We did a detailed Analysis of Alternatives to figure out how we can get to 80 pits per year by 2030. After we finished that AOA, we decided that we needed to do even further analysis.”
What followed was an engineering assessment, a workforce assessment, and numerous conversations to choose the best path forward to fulfill this mission requirement.
In May, NNSA announced its recommended alternative for conceptual design and to outline the steps toward the next milestone in this long-term effort.
The recommended alternative repurposes the facility formerly known as the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, at the Savannah River Site to produce 50 pits per year while also maintaining Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) as the Nation’s Plutonium Center of Excellence for Research & Development. Plutonium Facility 4 at LANL will ramp up operations to produce 30 pits per year. This two-site approach ensures resiliency, robustness, and flexibility for decades to come.
Deputy Director for Weapons at LANL Bob Webster explained the importance of using lessons learned from past experience to improve processes as the lab prepares for this important mission.
“We’re not building pits the same way we were back in the Rocky Flats days. There were risks that we accepted during the Cold War that you just don’t accept today,” said Webster.
Derek Wapman, Program Director for Weapon Technologies and Engineering at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, spoke on his lab’s role in this integrated effort.
“We provide the design definition – all the detailed drawings and specifications that will go to Los Alamos Lab and Savannah River,” he said. “It is a team sport and everybody has to be pulling the traces in the same direction. From where we are right now, it’s going exceptionally well.”
Nicole Nelson-Jean, Savannah River Site Field Office Manager, was similarly optimistic.
“The Savannah River Site has a very rich history of operating plants,” said Nelson-Jean. “In many ways, this activity is taking SRS back to its roots. I’m confident in where the site can go – particularly working with partners like Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.”
All of you in this room and on this stage and out in the field – continue to do the great work that you’re doing! We can do anything that we put our minds to because we are NNSA.
Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty