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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor

December 8, 2017

NNSA Looking At Pit Plant in S.C. as Congress Pumps Plutonium Funds to N.M.

By Dan Leone


The National Nuclear Security Administration believes manufacturing plutonium pits at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina might be cheaper than keeping the work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The semiautonomous Department of Energy agency settled on Savannah River after ruling out the Idaho National Laboratory as part of a congressionally mandated analysis of alternatives to producing nuclear-warhead cores at a new Los Alamos plant.

“The Analysis of Alternatives identified two options — one at Los Alamos National Laboratory and one at the Savannah River Site — for further engineering analysis, which will be conducted by a team of external and internal experts,” a spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) wrote in an email this week.

The Department of Energy has yet to release the full analysis, but a nine-page summary of the document leaked to the press this week. The document, apparently produced by the NNSA Defense Programs office, was briefed to the House and Senate Armed Services committees last week.

By 2030, DOE plans to produce between 50 and 80 plutonium pits per year to replenish the strength of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. According to the leaked summary, the quickest way to get anywhere near that mark is to convert the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) under construction at the Savannah River Site into a new pit manufacturing plant.

Converting the MFFF would cost between $1.4 billion and $5.4 billion, compared with $1.9 billion and $7.5 billion for new facilities at Los Alamos, according to the leaked summary. The Savannah River facility could begin manufacturing pits between 2027 and 2033, while the new Los Alamos facilities would not come online until sometime between 2024 and 2031, the summary shows.

Also according to the summary, the MFFF could hit the 80-pits-a-year mark fastest —  sometime between 2029 and 2036. New Los Alamos facilities would not achieve that output until some point from 2033 to 2038.

The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, being built for the NNSA by CB&I AREVA MOX Services, is designed to convert weapon-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors as part of an arms-control pact with Russia finalized in 2010. The Donald Trump administration, like the Barack Obama administration before it, wants to fulfill its obligation under the agreement by disposing of the plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and canceling MFFF’s plutonium-conversion mission.

Los Alamos’ existing Plutonium Facility can manufacture the warhead cores now and, with Rocky Flats near Denver, Colo., shut down, is the only pit-production facility left in the Department of Energy’s weapons complex.

However, the Los Alamos facility only just reopened from a three-year shutdown prompted by safety concerns. Since resuming operations this year, the facility has produced just two demonstration pits: proof-of-concept items that will not be used in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The facility plans to crank out another four demo pits in fiscal 2018, according to the summary.

All that said, funding for pit production is still flowing to Los Alamos.

The Trump administration requested funding bumps for both plutonium construction and production at Los Alamos for fiscal 2018. If spending bills awaiting final votes in Congress are passed, the lab would receive most of the raises the White House sought.

For the budget year that began Oct. 1, the administration requested more than $180 million to continue construction activities related to plutonium at Los Alamos this year: about a 20-percent increase from 2017 levels. To operate existing plutonium facilities at the lab, the White House requested $210 million for the NNSA’s Plutonium Sustainment account: about a 13-percent increase from 2017 levels.

Meanwhile, after the leaks this week and last, New Mexico lawmakers representing Los Alamos came out swinging in the lab’s defense, while South Carolina officials kept quiet.

In a joint statement, Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, along with Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (all D-N.M.), said the NNSA’s leaked analysis was “deeply flawed,” and that they were “deeply skeptical of any alternative” to producing pits at Los Alamos.

The three New Mexico lawmakers all supported an amendment to the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act — which Trump is expected to sign — that would make it harder, though not impossible, to produce pits anywhere but Los Alamos.

No elected official in South Carolina contacted by Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor this week replied to requests for comment.

That includes Gov. Henry McMaster (R), Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) — whose district includes the Savannah River Site — and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Graham is a voracious defender of the MOX project who has become increasingly friendlier to Trump this year.

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