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Rep. Wilson remains confident about SRS pit production, but sidesteps friendly bet

Joe Wilson, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, SRS Museum

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., left, tours the Savannah River Site Museum in downtown Aiken with National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, won't be taking his chairman's wager.

That doesn't mean, however, the South Carolina Republican thinks the National Nuclear Security Administration's potential plutonium pit production mission at the Savannah River Site – crafting nuclear weapon cores at the federal complex south of Aiken – is doomed.

"I understand the skepticism; and, sadly, we've seen cost overruns that just should not have occurred," Wilson told the Aiken Standard on Monday, possibly referencing the nixed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, a multibillion-dollar odyssey. "But, I'm confident with Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the NNSA, that we've got people there now who will do it."

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat heading up the House Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the U.S. Department of Energy, earlier this summer said he would "confidently bet $100" that SRS would not nail its end of the plutonium pit production equation.

"This isn't like, I don't know, remodeling a bowling alley into a restaurant," Smith said of necessary pit production preparations. "You got to move a lot of very thick concrete walls around, and you got to make sure it works. Seeing what they did at Los Alamos, it's very difficult to make these things."

Smith's remarks came during a review of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. On Monday, weeks before the House and Senate are expected to conference their respective versions of the annual defense policy and spending bills, Wilson countered, "And so I'm not going to bet him $100, but I will say this: I have faith in our personnel."

Federal law requires the U.S. be able to produce 80 plutonium pits – triggers at the heart of modern nuclear weapons – by 2030. Roughly a decade out, that ability does not exist.

In 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense recommended forging the nuclear weapon cores in two states: 50 per year would be made at the Savannah River Site, at a wholly redone MOX facility, and 30 per year would be made at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a plutonium center of excellence near Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

For months Wilson has championed the two-pronged approach, which National Nuclear Security Administration officials have said will prevent the cross-country endeavor from being paralyzed by a single failure, mishap or schedule slip.

"The two sites are just critical for the efficacy of this program," Wilson said Monday, sitting in his Aiken County office.

There are critics, though. And an independent analysis handled by the Institute for Defense Analyses found that reaching 80 pits per year is possible but "extremely challenging," among other damning conclusions.

"Members of this committee know full well problems that we've had in the past with premature and, sometimes, inadequate construction plans," U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said during the same summer markup of the NDAA. "We want to make sure that there are not unnecessary delays or cost overruns at Savannah River."

Wilson and Smith together toured the Savannah River Site national defense facilities, including the tritium hub and MOX, earlier this year.

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