A proposed production complex at the Savannah River Site could by itself satisfy the looming military demand for plutonium pits – nuclear weapon cores – if circumstances so required, according to a new National Nuclear Security Administration review.
Repurposing the failed, multibillion-dollar Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility and surrounding support buildings would enable the production of a minimum "50 pits per year, with a surge capacity up to 80 pits per year," the draft environmental impact statement, published this month, reads.
Federal law requires the production of 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030 – a tight schedule and aggressive deadline, officials have acknowledged, given that the U.S. has for years lacked a stout ability to make the nuclear weapon cores.
The last place pits were produced in great volume, the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, was raided by the FBI decades ago and was subsequently shuttered. Between 1952 and 1989, the installation near Denver pumped out thousands of pits.
In May 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration – a weapons- and nonproliferation-focused arm of the U.S. Department of Energy – and the U.S. Department of Defense together recommended jumpstarting plutonium pit production in two states: South Carolina and New Mexico.
Fifty pits per year, they jointly counseled, would be made at the Savannah River Site, at a MOX turned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility. The remaining pits, 30, would be made at an improved Los Alamos National Laboratory, a plutonium center of excellence near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
The two-pronged approach, officials say and the environmental study doubles down on, is more flexible and cost-manageable and prevents a single flaw from crippling or paralyzing such a national security imperative.
"For example, if pit production at LANL were paused for some reason, overall pit production requirements could be satisfied at SRS," the draft study states, later adding that not proceeding with the South Carolina option "might" jeopardize the U.S.'s ability to maintain its nuclear backbone.
An earlier, separate analysis acknowledged that Los Alamos National Lab could flex production to 80 pits per year, as well, with additional staffing.
"The upshot is that NNSA is building an 80 pits per year pit production capability at LANL right now," Los Alamos Study Group's Greg Mello has said. Reached for comment Monday, Mello added, among other things, "NNSA was pressured into its wasteful and destructive two-site plan by LANL and New Mexico's Democratic senators."
"Decisions about pit production in South Carolina also affect New Mexico," he said.
Constructing the prospective Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility complex at the Savannah River Site, 30 minutes south of Aiken, would take about six years. Minor construction activities, according to the NNSA's draft study, could continue beyond that and during facility startup in 2026.
Repurposing the MOX footprint for pits is both faster than and, on average, significantly cheaper than a greenfield facility, the study states. National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, also the Energy Department's under secretary of nuclear security, has previously told the Aiken Standard that capitalizing on MOX puts things "decades ahead of schedule, if you will."
Dave Olson, the pit production mission director with Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the top contractor at the Savannah River Site, in February said mothballing MOX – what was meant to be a nuclear fuel facility – left his team with roughly 9 million pieces of "uninstalled equipment" that were bought and never "put in." At the time of Olson's remarks, about 7 million pieces had been flagged for reuse in plutonium pit production as well as a separate plutonium disposal project at the site.
"It's a massive infrastructure program," Gordon-Hagerty said in a 2019 interview. "These are major capital construction projects, and so we decided that it would be in best use of taxpayer dollars if we would repurpose that facility."
Savannah River Site Watch Director Tom Clements, though, is comparably less sanguine. Clements in a statement said the draft study "lacks justification for production of pits and totally fails to establish how SRS, which has zero experience handling or producing pits, could take on this complex task."
Not fully evaluating the shortcomings of the actual MOX facility, Clements said, is "setting the project up for the usual delays, cost overruns" and "eventual failure."
The public can submit comments regarding the Savannah River Site pit production study through May 18. Comments can be emailed to NEPA-SRS@srs.gov.
The National Nuclear Security Administration has also tentatively planned a virtual public meeting on the matter at the end of April.