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SRS pit production pitch not nixed by decision to move forward at Los Alamos National Lab

Los Alamos National Lab, Richard Robinson (copy) (copy)

An aerial view of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The lab recently was given approval for Critical Decision-1 by the NNSA related to plutonium pit production. (Photo provided/Richard Robinson)

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s recent decision to move forward with plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico does not derail or disqualify a proposal to also produce the warhead components at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

The two installations, one near Santa Fe and the other near Aiken, were in 2018 recommended as the sites where plutonium pits should be made in the years to come. At least 30 pits per year would be produced at Los Alamos National Lab, the NNSA and the Department of Defense suggested at the time, and at least 50 pits per year would be made at the Savannah River Site.

The National Nuclear Security Administration on Wednesday announced it had approved a major project milestone – known as Critical Decision-1 – for the Los Alamos end of the equation. Approval of Critical Decision-1 marks the end of the conceptual design phase, among other things, and can be thought of as an early go-ahead. A project is effectively complete at Critical Decision-4.

The nuclear weapons agency’s afternoon announcement specifically mentioned the production of 30 pits per year at Los Alamos, leaving room for the Savannah River Site.

“There is no indication that the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility is dead,” Los Alamos Study Group's Greg Mello said. Relying on Los Alamos to meet pit production demands, he added, would be absurd. “LANL's facilities are simply too old and inherently unsafe, its location too impractical. Even with a much smaller stockpile LANL could not undertake this mission successfully.”

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions earlier this year submitted to the NNSA preliminary plans to make pits at the Savannah River Site, utilizing the footprint of a failed nuclear fuel facility. The NNSA received the packet – reams of documents, pages and data to parse.

The local submission was bound for “a multi-month review and approval process that says we either accept it or we don’t, or if we accept it, here’s how we’d like you to” proceed, according to Dave Olson, the executive vice president for NNSA capital projects at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions is the top contractor at SRS.

A significant decision on Savannah River Site pit production – the forging of nuclear weapon cores – is expected soon. The exact timeline, though, is unclear. A Biden administration review of the nuclear arsenal could gunk up the gears, as could a lawsuit environmental groups are threatening.

The NNSA’s disclosure Wednesday comes days before Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm will testify before a House appropriations subcommittee about her department’s fiscal year 2022 budget request.

The timing raised the eyebrows of Tom Clements, the director of Savannah River Site Watch, a watchdog organization.

“Given that no supporting documentation has been released reflects the political nature of this decision, in my opinion, timed to come out before DOE budget discussions begin,” he said.

President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2022 budget blueprint included $46.1 billion for the Department of Energy.

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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