Is the US unable to hit target plutonium pit production for nukes? - report

The US aims to maintain its nuclear arsenal by making 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030, but the GAO says this plan is lacking schedule and cost.

 A plutonium pit surrounded by neutron-reflecting blocks of tungsten carbide, a recreation of an infamous disaster in 1945 at LANL (Illustrative).. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A plutonium pit surrounded by neutron-reflecting blocks of tungsten carbide, a recreation of an infamous disaster in 1945 at LANL (Illustrative)..
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The US aims to modernize its nuclear arsenal, but its plan to produce more triggers for its warheads, known as plutonium pits, is too vague and currently unfeasible, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

This is despite plans for the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to maintain the country's nuclear arsenal.

According to the congressional watchdog's report, however, this may not possible given the NNSA's vague schedule plans.

What are plutonium pits and why does the US need them?

Plutonium pits are the implosion cores of nuclear warheads. As such, they are literally at the center of each nuke, with the name "pit" coming from the word for large seeds in fruits like avocados. 

 Nuclear bomb explosion (credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN) Nuclear bomb explosion (credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

They are essentially hollowed-out plutonium spheres around the size of a bowling ball that causes a nuclear explosion when explosives around it inside the warhead all go off.

In other words, they are a major part of what makes nuclear weapons so devastating.

Despite how important they are though, there is a major issue: Ever since the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado was shut down in 1989 following an FBI raid, the US has made just 31 pits, and the last of those was made in 2013.

This is a major issue for the US, with the Biden administration having published guidelines to help further modernize the US military, including its nuclear capabilities, such as reinvesting in the nuclear triad.

This is especially important, as China and Russia both continue to push nuclear advances of their own.

Not only that, but according to a 2022 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook report, the number of nuclear weapons throughout the world is set to continue to rise in the next decade.

This nuclear modernization is something the US has been working on since the Trump and Obama administrations. To highlight how out of date and in need of modernization the US nuclear arsenal is, consider that up until 2019, the computer system that essentially functioned as the backbone of the US nuclear arsenal was forced to rely on eight-inch floppy disks.

In addition, there are other reasons, such as aging, to replace plutonium pits, as indicated by the US Energy Department.

Considering the US has around 4,000 nuclear weapons, each containing a plutonium pit, the US is going to need a lot of them to replace them all. 

Plutonium pits have an average lifespan of around 100-150 years, according to previous studies. In order to replace all 4,000 or so pits in the US nuclear arsenal, then they will need 80 pits a year by 2030 in order to have them all replaced by 2080.

Back in 2018, the NNSA and the Energy Department were ordered to have the capacity and output of 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030. 

But as the GAO report indicates, this isn't possible with the NNSA's current plan.

Why can't the US manufacture enough plutonium pits?

The reason why is fairly simple: It isn't easy to make plutonium pits.

Doing so is incredibly difficult and incredibly expensive, and the US needs to allocate resources accordingly.

In addition, there is also the matter of location.

Currently, there is just a single place in the US that can manufacture plutonium pits: The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico. 

However, this facility has been mired in controversy since the early 2000s. In 2013, LANL was shut down due to severe safety hazards. Since then, it has partially reopened, but safety concerns were still present after reports emerged that workers weren't following guidelines when handling plutonium, the Washington Post reported.

Even if LANL was fully reopened and everything at the facility worked as needed, it still wouldn't be enough. 

The NNSA, however, is aware of this. That's why they only plan on producing 30 plutonium pits per year at the site.

In order to manufacture the other 50, they plan to repurpose the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Energy Department-run Savannah River Site in South Carolina. 

This facility used to work on its own important nuclear project: Turning plutonium into reactor fuel. However, the facility was shut down in 2018 after it was running 32 years behind schedule and around $13 billion over budget, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation.

There is also the issue of where the plutonium would even come from. Would they reuse old plutonium, since the Bush administration stopped fissionable plutonium production in 1992?

This would be even more complicated, since doing so would mean scrapping and repurposing plutonium pits, which would be done at the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas. After that, it would be shipped to LANL. But then they need to dispose of the radioactive waste, which needs to be done at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, as LANL's website explained.

And all of this is assuming everything functions smoothly because it all needs to be done in real-time to make sure there isn't a backlog, LANL director Thom Mason explained. 

The cost is also a major factor, as the expenses needed to run a nuclear project and clean it can add up. 

The Rocky Flats Plant once allowed the US to have an output of around 1,000-2,000 plutonium pits per year. It was shut down in 1989, though, because of supposedly breaking environmental regulations.

After it was shut down, it was time to clean up the area. This clean-up lasted 16 years and cost around $7 billion, according to Physics Today.

This illustrates just how expensive plutonium pit production can be, especially if something goes wrong and needs to be cleaned up.

With all that in mind, the NNSA hasn't actually given a comprehensive schedule or even a price tag for how much all of this work is going to cost.

However, the GAO did its own estimation, putting the entire project as high as $24 billion. 

The GAO recommends the NNSA make a better cost estimate in line with their own, and the NNSA has reportedly agreed.

This isn't too surprising, since issues with the US government's plans for 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030 were met with skepticism by some watchdog groups since 2019, and even the NNSA has expressed reservations before. Back in 2021, the then-acting NNSA administrator testified that they wouldn't hit their target until maybe 2035. Later estimates by other analyses further claimed it may be as far as 2036, in light of how long it would take to get the Savannah River Site up and running.

Further, in March 2022, the commander of the US Strategic Command said that "no amount of funding" would be enough to get the NNSA to reach the 2030 deadline.

But it remains to be seen if the NNSA and Energy Department can pull together enough resources to make an adequate production framework to make more plutonium pits.