Yesterday, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) began construction of a new 45,000 square foot $142 million high explosives facility at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. The public account (which cites the wrong cost estimate) of the groundbreaking primarily focused on how the new facility, called the High Explosives Pressing Facility (HEPF), will replace old buildings and increase efficiency. In reality, the HEPF is part of a plan to significantly increase the United States’ capacity to produce high explosives for nuclear weapons.
According to NNSA planning documents, the Pantex Plant is in the process of increasing its capacity for manufacturing high explosives for nuclear weapons from 1,000 to 2,500 pounds per year. As part of that plan, the HEPF will almost double the number of explosive hemispheres Pantex produces, from 300 to 500 hemispheres per year (explosive hemispheres are part of a weapon’s Nuclear Explosive Package).
In theory, the HEPF will allow Pantex to produce explosives for up to 250 warheads per year. In practice, this facility will be used to generate explosives to replace those in existing nuclear weapons and for testing purposes. According to the Department of Energy’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget request, “this project [the HEPF] will provide a new high explosive (HE) main charge pressing facility with capability and capacity to meet the needs of changing weapon complexity, projected workload, and the Life Extension Program activities in the future including the W76, W78, and W88 Programs.” The budget also states that current explosives in nuclear weapons could be replaced with Insensitive High Explosives, another possible motivation for building a facility with a greater production capacity.
Why Does NNSA Need to Produce More Explosives For Fewer Weapons?
A couple months ago, I was at an event with an NNSA official who was talking about the nuclear weapons complex. I asked the official why NNSA was building facilities with greater production capacity if the number of U.S. nuclear weapons was decreasing. The official’s answer was that nuclear weapons production facilities were being sized to fit the amount of work being planned, not the number of weapons in the stockpile.
This has always seemed like an odd answer to me. Shouldn’t there be a relationship between the size of the stockpile and the amount of work needed? Shouldn’t both of those things help to inform the size of the production facilities? The HEPF is a good example of this paradox.