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Senators want updates, eyes kept on NNSA plutonium modernization projects

DOE Headquarters, Forrestal Building, DC (copy) (copy)

The James Forrestal Building, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Energy, in Washington, D.C.

U.S. senators are seeking reviews of one agency's multibillion-dollar plutonium pit production projects as they progress, a request driven by what lawmakers described as "the importance" of the nation's broader "plutonium mission."

A report accompanying the Senate's now-passed fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act features directions for periodic assessments of the National Nuclear Security Administration's plutonium modernization plans and infrastructure, including at the Savannah River Site's prospective Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility and at Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The studies, to be handled by the U.S. comptroller general, should examine costs, schedules, readiness and how well integrated things are across the NNSA, the bill report states.

The National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense in 2018 together recommended producing plutonium pits – nuclear weapon cores – in both South Carolina and New Mexico. Federal law requires the ability to produce 80 pits per year by 2030.

Fifty pits per year would be made at the Savannah River Site, according to the two-year-old joint recommendation, and 30 per year would be made at Los Alamos. Either installation, though, could pump out the 80 pits per year if need be, according to two recent environmental studies.

Senators seemingly want to keep tabs on progress as the 2030 deadline approaches.

The Senate's $740.5 billion NDAA, an annual defense-policy bill, passed Thursday 86-14. The House passed its version 295-125 earlier this week. The differences will be discussed in conference and hashed out in the weeks to come.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is a semiautonomous arm of the U.S. Department of Energy. The agency manages and cares for the nation's nuclear stockpile and already operates at the Savannah River Site.

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