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.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the Cabinet official who oversees the nation’s nuclear labs, promised in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that he would meet the Pentagon’s demands, even though the only lab capable of producing the triggers hasn’t made one suitable for a nuclear weapon in years.
“It is important for us to be able to send a clear message that we can get it done, we can get it done on a timely basis and get it done in a way that taxpayers respect is thoughtful about their concerns,” Perry said in a rare appearance by the nation’s top energy official at the Senate body overseeing the military.
Known as “plutonium pits” because they rest inside nuclear bombs like a pit inside a stone fruit, the roughly grapefruit-size spheres are a critical component of nuclear weapons because they trigger nuclear fission when squeezed by explosives. They require replacement as they degrade over time or end up destroyed during regular checks of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
At issue is the Pentagon’s demand that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) — overseen by the Energy Department — be able to produce 30 plutonium pits a year by 2026 and 80 a year by 2030 to sustain the military’s plans for its nuclear weapons.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory is just coming back on line after suspending pit 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 lab would require a sizable expansion to ramp up to 80 pits a year.
Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, who oversees U.S. nuclear forces as the head of Strategic Command, said he was worried about whether the nation’s nuclear establishment will be able to meet the requirement, despite assurances from officials at the Energy Department and NNSA.
“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 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 expressed concern about the age of some plutonium pits being used.
Nearly all current pits were produced between 1978 and 1989, according to the Pentagon. There is some debate about how long they can last and whether the military in fact needs such high production levels. In 2006, a study by two of the nation’s nuclear labs assessed that majority of plutonium pits for most nuclear weapons have minimum lifetimes of at least 85 years.
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 country began to rely largely on dismantling existing nuclear weapons for plutonium pits and stockpile management, particularly 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 United States no longer operates the full range of facilities capable of producing nuclear weapons and for nearly two decades stopped producing plutonium pits altogether.
“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.”
Perry highlighted the Trump administration’s decision to budget more funding for the NNSA for that purpose in his testimony Thursday. The 2018 spending bill that the House approved Thursday allocates $10.6 billion to weapons activities within the NNSA — which includes infrastructure updates, maintenance and repairs — an increase from $9.2 billion in 2017 and $8.85 billion in 2016. The administration has requested $11 billion in 2019.
But doubts persist about whether the agency charged with stewarding the country’s nuclear weapons can achieve such a complex task, while escaping a past marred by cost overruns and safety incidents.
The administration faces billions of backlogged repairs to aging facilities. At one point in recent years, chunks of the ceiling were falling out at the Y-12 complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a facility established during the Manhattan Project to enrich uranium for the first atomic bombs.
“When I go to Oak Ridge, and I’m in facilities that were built in some cases before I was born, and that’s a spell ago, then it becomes abundantly clear to me,” Perry, who is 68, said Thursday.
For the first 13 months of the Trump administration, the NNSA lacked a Senate-confirmed director chosen by President Trump, resulting in lost time on some of the most pressing political decisions to be made on 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. The Trump administration had kept in place an Obama-era appointee, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, in the meantime.
Gordon-Hagerty has promised to prioritize resolving the plutonium-pit issue and escape the past problems at the NNSA, where big projects have resulted in cost overruns and mismanagement.
For much of the Cold War, the United States produced plutonium triggers at a 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 the NNSA canceled the project in 2012 after spending nearly half a billion dollars on designs as cost estimates spiraled out of control.
Around the same time, the existing Los Alamos production line was shut down amid safety incidents 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 produce pits instead of fulfilling its original purpose of turning weapons-grade plutonium into reactor fuel.
The 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 continued funding it primarily due to political support from the South Carolina delegation.
The NNSA is due to deliver its final recommendation to Congress about how to expand plutonium pit production by May 11.
The Senate committee members pointed out that the NNSA took three years to analyze where the new production facility should be housed and still failed to issue a decision. The former Texas governor said he would be “greatly concerned” if the new timeline isn’t met.