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Review of pit production, other nuke projects on new deputy defense secretary's radar

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Kathleen Hicks, SASC Hearing

Kathleen Hicks, now the deputy secretary of defense, is pictured at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 2.

Kathleen Hicks, confirmed as the deputy secretary of defense Monday, recently pledged to support a review of the nation's nuclear modernization programs, including plutonium pit production.

In responding to written questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hicks aligned herself with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who in his own exchange with lawmakers promised a sweeping assessment and, further, did not explicitly back a years-old recommendation to produce the nuclear weapon cores in both South Carolina and New Mexico.

"As Secretary Austin testified, maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent is critical to our nation's defense," Hicks wrote. "If confirmed, I will see that the department thoroughly studies all proposed plans and alternatives to ensure we are on the most cost-effective path to modernize U.S. nuclear forces."

The U.S. has long lacked the means to make a great number of pits, a key warhead component. In May 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Department jointly proposed jumpstarting production using the Savannah River Site and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The multibillion-dollar, unfinished Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at SRS would be repurposed, they counseled, and Plutonium Facility-4 at Los Alamos National Lab would be expanded.

Overhauling the nuclear arsenal, as well as the aging Department of Energy infrastructure that undergirds it, "is a critical national security priority," Hicks wrote in response to another question. "A secure, sustainable, and effective nuclear deterrent remains vital to U.S. national security and that of our allies."

Exactly what the review floated by Hicks and Austin means for South Carolina – Aiken County, namely – is unclear. Some observers, though, forecast greater pit production scrutiny under President Joe Biden.

"I think we can be sure that pit production is going to be more expensive than previously understood. Both sites have, probably, lowballed," said Greg Mello with the Los Alamos Study Group. "One of the questions is: Can the Biden administration and NNSA face another gigantic increase in budget request driven just by pit production?"

Hicks is the first woman confirmed by the Senate to serve as the No. 2 at the Pentagon. She'll handle the department's day-to-day business.

Hicks served as a senior defense official under the Obama administration.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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