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Pit production makes inspector general's list of Energy Department challenges

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In May 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Department jointly recommended repurposing the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility for plutonium pit production.

Reestablishing the nation’s plutonium pit production capabilities is among the most significant challenges currently faced by the U.S. Department of Energy, according to a new report from the department’s inspector general.

In order to produce the desired amount of pits and satisfy demands laid out in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the fiscal year 2021 report reads, “the department must take significant action.”

Manufacturing expertise needs restoring, a sufficient workforce must be developed and maintained, interim milestones need meeting to remain on schedule, the 20-page document, published this month, suggests, and highly specialized facilities will need constructing and modernizing, a multibillion-dollar affair on its own.

During her tenure as the leader of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty ranked plutonium pit production as the agency’s “highest” infrastructure priority. Similarly, Charles Verdon, the NNSA’s deputy administrator for defense programs, has said attention and resources are being “focused like a laser beam.”

“We are, obviously, keenly focused on the 80 pits per year,” Verdon said this year. “We are making progress in that area.”

For years the U.S. has lacked a robust means of producing plutonium pits – the triggers at the heart of modern nuclear weapons. The last place the cores were made en masse, Colorado’s Rocky Flats Plant, was raided by the FBI and ultimately scuttled, which the inspector general report acknowledges. Know-how since then, it adds, has atrophied.

In 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Department recommended producing pits in two states: South Carolina and New Mexico.

At least 50 pits per year, they jointly counseled, would be made at a refitted Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, what’s now known as the proposed Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility. And at least 30 pits per year would be made at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a storied installation near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Managing two momentous expansions some 1,600 miles apart will be complicated, according to the inspector general’s analysis. Meantime, skeptics and naysayers have compared the prospective buildout to fantasy.

“Read this and tell me with a straight face that the NNSA’s plan to produce at least 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030 is any way, shape, or form realistically executable,” Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, wrote on Twitter in September, referencing a U.S. Government Accountability Office study.

Trump administration officials have acknowledged the uphill battle. Manhattan Project allusions have been made locally.

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