The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is mounting a full-court press for the “modernization” of the nuclear weapons production complex, an effort packed with capital-intensive projects on which contractors thrive. A cornerstone of modernization, a new plant to make the plutonium “pits” for new nuclear weapons already faces problems. Yet, Congress and the Biden administration are moving ahead despite gathering storm clouds.
“Pits” are the hollow plutonium spheres that cause the initial nuclear explosion in all U.S. nuclear weapons. New pits would first go into the new W87-1 warhead for a new missile, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), meant to replace the U.S.’s current ICBMs. Second in the queue is a submarine launched missile. Both weapons have their detractors, but pits could prove to be their ultimate stumbling block.
The new pit plant will be at DOE’s sprawling Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. Already SRS’s plans face massive cost increases and schedule delays, causing skepticism in Congress.
In 2020, NNSA presented an initial cost estimate of $4.6 billion for the SRS pit plant. By June of this year that cost estimate had more than doubled to a stunning $11 billion. Timelines continue to slip as well. NNSA has quietly admitted in its fiscal year 2022 budget request that the original 2030 operational date to produce 50 pits had slipped until between 2032 and 2035.
While more schedule setbacks loom, the NNSA has tried to save some time by cutting corners. The most obvious is the rushed manner in which they conducted a legally required environmental analysis of the project. In their haste, NNSA failed to analyze environmental justice concerns and impacts of pit production across the DOE complex. Of paramount concern, disposal of plutonium waste has not been reviewed. Public interest groups filed a lawsuit against DOE on June 29, demanding preparation of a required Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. A response to the lawsuit is due on Sept. 27.
None of this should be surprising. SRS lacks pit production experience and has a record of problems. Perhaps that is why the NNSA is also having the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico to also produce pits. That lab has been assigned to ramp up its current pit production with a goal of producing 30 pits per year by 2026, a tall task for a facility plagued by plutonium-handling problems.
Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — House lawmakers eye military pay raise next year House lawmakers want military pay raise for enlisted troops Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response MORE (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, knows all of this. He highlighted the agency’s chronic inability to carry out modernization projects earlier this year saying, “in nearly every instance, NNSA programs have seen massive cost increases, schedule delays, and cancellations of billion-dollar programs. This must end.”
On Aug. 31, when speaking about pit production in a Brookings Institution virtual event, Smith went further saying that "Savannah River sort of gives me an involuntary twitch after the whole MOX disaster. I don't trust them.”
And what a disaster it was. MOX was a plutonium fuel plant at SRS that NNSA wasted $8 billion on before termination in 2018. Smith’s mistrust is well placed— his committee should investigate the failed construction of the MOX plant before handing the same facility billions more for a new project.
In the event at Brookings, Smith defended his lack of action on pits and the GBSD, saying that decisions about them are in a “tactical pause” until the cost of the SRS plutonium bomb plant is clearer and as we wait and see if President BidenJoe BidenHow 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room MORE will honor his pledge to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, of which almost 4,000 are deployed or in active reserve.
Of course, Smith is incorrect as there is no pause in either the projects or the spending. If he wants a real pause, he must act. Without strong leadership and oversight, the programs could quickly develop the same inertia as MOX leaving us with another multi-billion fiasco with nothing to show for it.
He and his colleagues should fight to reduce fiscal year 2022 funding authorization in the National Defense Authorization Act for the SRS pit plant ($710 million), Los Alamos pit production ($1 billion) and the W87-1 warhead ($691 million for NNSA and $2.6 billion for the Department of Defense). He should review the reuse of 15,000 existing pits stored at DOE’s Pantex Plant in Texas. He should also demand a proper environmental review of pit production.
Waiting for Biden is an inadequate strategy. Action is needed now by Chairman Smith and Congress to increase our collective security by fulfilling their leadership responsibilities. Requiring a true pause on pit production would not only stop money from being wasted on this project but would act as a wake-up call that nuclear weapons projects don’t have a blank check from Congress.
Tom Clements is the director of Savannah River Site Watch a public interest organization in Columbia, South Carolina, which monitors U.S. Department of Energy management of weapon-usable materials, nuclear weapons production, and clean-up of high-level nuclear waste, with a focus on the Savannah River Site.
This piece has been updated.