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Funding, authorizations the 'biggest' risks pit production faces, Defense official says

MOX, High Flyer Photo (copy)

An aerial view of the nixed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site.

Proper funding and necessary authorizations represent the "biggest" hurdles the plutonium pit production endeavor must clear, a U.S. Department of Defense executive said last week, echoing sentiments other nuclear officials have previously expressed.

"I, and the rest of the Department of Defense, fully support the two-site strategy," Drew Walter, performing the duties of deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, said during a May 26 online forum. "But I will emphasize: I don't want to see this movie a fifth time. We need to have picked this as our way ahead, and stick to it."

The current recommendation for reinvigorated plutonium pit production – the forging of nuclear weapon cores, also known as triggers – intimately involves two states, South Carolina and New Mexico, a divided Congress with lawmakers already jockeying for and against the venture, and a broad spectrum of local, vested opinions.

Producing the plutonium cores in South Carolina alone would be a multibillion-dollar process. A rough estimate made by the Congressional Budget Office in 2019 priced pit production, in general, at $9 billion over the course of a decade. National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty has described it as an investment in America's future and security.

Federal law requires the production of 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030 – a heavy lift, as the U.S. has for years lacked the capability. The last place pits were produced en masse, thousands per year, was the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. It was raided by the FBI decades ago and was scuttled. 

To meet the demand for pits, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Department in May 2018 recommended making the cores at the Savannah River Site, 50 per year at a repurposed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, and, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, 30 per year at a reinforced PF-4.

The NNSA – the U.S. Department of Energy's weapons-and-nonproliferation arm – has already allocated Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the Savannah River Site's top contractor, millions of dollars for the transformation of the failed MOX project. The Trump administration has previously requested hundreds of millions of dollars for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, the name for the proposed pit hub south of Aiken.

Inadequate funding hamstrung the MOX nuclear fuel project, the lead contractor, MOX Services, argued in court around this time last year. Between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, project funding levels hovered around $320 million per year, a court complaint noted.

Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce President and CEO J. David Jameson on Monday said a funding lesson was likely learned at MOX: "Constraining the money," he said, can choke, if not kill, a project.

"Right now," though, "there's no reason to believe the funding won't be there for pit production," he said. The local chamber has repeatedly advocated for plutonium pit production at the Savannah River Site.

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