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'That's key': Weapons executive reiterates NNSA's pit production focus

A top National Nuclear Security Administration official recently reiterated exactly how focused the agency is on plutonium pit production, a nuclear weapons mission that could hinge on South Carolina and the Savannah River Site, more specifically.

Speaking remotely at a July 29 deterrence forum, Dr. Charles Verdon, deputy administrator for defense programs, said successfully rebooting pit production is "key." The National Nuclear Security Administration, he continued, is "keenly focused" on getting the requisite things done. Verdon has previously described it as laser beam-like attention.

"Some key manufacturing capabilities that we had have also atrophied, and we have to be able to re-stand those up," Verdon, who leads a team maintaining and ensuring the security of the nation's nuclear stockpile, said last week. He continued: "So it's not only the facilities and the capabilities in those facilities, but also within existing facilities, reestablishing certain production capabilities, in particular, that we no longer have."

The U.S. has for years lacked the ability to reliably make plutonium pits – cores or triggers at the heart of modern nuclear weapons. And that's a problem, as federal law mandates that 80 pits per year be produced by 2030.

The last place the cores were made by the thousands, the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, was decades ago raided by the FBI.

To address the disparity, the NNSA and the U.S. Department of Defense in May 2018 recommended making a majority of the pits, 50 per year, at the Savannah River Site south of Aiken. A minority of the pits, the remaining 30 per year, would be made at Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Either installation, though, could surge production and make the 80 if needed, according to a pair of separate-but-related environmental studies handled by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Action across the nationwide nuclear-security complex must be taken quickly to avoid hurting "our deterrent," Verdon urged, drawing a comparison to an ever-shortening runway. 

"NNSA is its own industrial base, to a large extent," the deputy administrator said. "And that's probably a good thing. We don't want too many people that know how to make nuclear weapons."

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