The U.S. military is concerned that the government isn’t moving quickly enough to ramp up American production of the plutonium cores that trigger nuclear warheads, as the Trump administration proceeds with a $1 trillion overhaul of the nation’s nuclear force.
Questioning about production of the warhead cores is likely to figure into a testimony that Energy Secretary Rick Perry is slated to give Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, a rare appearance by the top energy official at the Senate body that oversees the military.
Plutonium cores are often called plutonium pits because they rest inside nuclear bombs like pits inside stone fruits.
At issue is the Pentagon’s demand that the National Nuclear Security Administration — overseen by the Department of Energy — be able to produce 80 plutonium pits a year by 2030 to sustain the military’s nuclear weapons. Roughly the size of a grapefruit, plutonium pits that trigger warheads sometimes need to be replaced as they degrade or end up destroyed during evaluation.
The only U.S. facility capable of producing the pits at the moment, Los Alamos National Laboratory, is just coming back on line after suspending production years ago because of safety concerns. The lab recently restarted its operation but is still producing only research-and-development pits that are unsuitable for U.S. weapons. The facility must be expandedto meet the Pentagon’s requirements.
Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, who oversees U.S. nuclear forces as the head of Strategic Command, voiced worries about whether the nation’s nuclear establishment will be able to meet the requirement, despite assurances from officials at the Energy Department and NNSA that they will prioritize the matter.
“I still have concerns,” Hyten said in a Senate testimony earlier this week. He said he was “very nervous” that the requirement might be met only “just in time.”
Hyten warned that the new nuclear weapons the Pentagon is developing — new bombers, submarines, ICBMs, low-yield submarine-launch ballistic missiles, air-launch and sea-launch cruise missiles — all require reliable warheads. He also expressed concern about the age of some plutonium pits currently being used.
Nearly all current stockpile pits were produced between 1978 and 1989, according to the Pentagon. The military hasn’t said exactly how long they can reliably be used in warheads.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has discontinued many of the nuclear weapons capabilities the nation built up during the Cold War. The United States began to rely largely on dismantling existing nuclear weapons for plutonium pits and stockpile management, as defense spending priorities diverted to the global war against terrorism.
Now the United States is facing a reckoning as Russia and China also race to advance their nuclear arsenals and much of the infrastructure the military relies on to support its nuclear capabilities ages out. The U.S. no longer operates the full range of facilities capable of producing new nuclear weapons.
“Past assumptions that our capability to produce nuclear weapons would not be necessary and that we could permit the required infrastructure to age into obsolescence have proven to be mistaken,” the Trump administration said in the nuclear weapons policy it published in February. “It is now clear that the United States must have sufficient research, design, development, and production capacity to support the sustainment and replacement of its nuclear forces.”
The Trump administration has budgeted more funding for the NNSA to reinvest in the country’s nuclear infrastructure, but doubts persist in Congress about whether the agency charged with stewarding the country’s nuclear weapons can escape a past marred by cost overruns and safety incidents.
For the first 13 months of the Trump administration, the agency lacked a Senate-confirmed director, resulting in lost time on some of the most pressing nuclear matters.
Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, a former health physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was sworn in to administer the agency on Feb. 22.
Gordon-Hagerty has promised to prioritize resolving the plutonium pit issue.
For years, the United States produced the plutonium triggers at a nuclear weapons production facility called Rocky Flats outside Denver. The facility shut down in 1989 months after federal agents raided the premises due to environmental crimes.
Nearly two decades later, the United States resumed a limited operation to manufacture plutonium pits in 2007, this time at Los Alamos.
By then, the NNSA was in the midst of plans to build a bigger plutonium pit production facility at the lab, which would have increased capacity and added protections against earthquakes. But as cost estimates skyrocketed, the NNSA canceled the project in 2012 after spending nearly half a billion dollars on designs.
Around the same time, the existing Los Alamos production line was shut down amid safety concerns, including several that were documented last year in reports by the Center for Public Integrity. The lab only recently restarted the operation.
Now the NNSA must decide how to expand production of plutonium pits to meet the Pentagon’s requirements by 2030. Under one option being considered, less ambitious “module” buildings would be constructed at the existing Los Alamos site.
An alternative would include repurposing one of the most problematic projects the Department of Energy has ever undertaken, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina, to make pits.
Originally designed to turn weapons grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel, the MOX facility is billions of dollars over budget and still only partially built.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have tried to kill the project, but Congress has declined to discontinue construction owing primarily to political support from powerful members of the South Carolina delegation. Some have suggested transforming it to produce plutonium pits.
The NNSA is due to deliver its recommendation to Congress by May 11.