Another search through the Government Printing Office’s website reveals new information about a key nuclear weapons-related issue.
Following a June 21 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on implementation of the New START treaty and related matters, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) submitted numerous questions for the record concerning the Obama administration’s decision to delay construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) by at least five years. The responses provided by then-National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Tom D’Agostino contain additional detail about NNSA’s proposed alternative to CMRR-NF. In particular, D’Agostino’s responses show that NNSA has concluded that beginning in the early 2020s, it believes it will have the capability to reuse 90 plutonium pits (the fissile cores of modern US nuclear weapons) per year.
Instead of building CMRR-NF now, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plans to pursue an interim strategy to sustain US plutonium capabilities using the existing facilities and buildings around the nuclear weapons complex. Following the submission of the FY 2013 budget request last February, Los Alamos conducted a 60 day study on plutonium sustainment options, including the feasability of reusing pits from nuclear weapons that are no longer in the active US stockpile.
To date, NNSA and Pentagon officials have not divulged much information about the results of the 60 day study or the details of the interim strategy. One thing we do know is the ballpark cost of the interim strategy, which Los Alamos estimates to be “in the range of $590M–$820M over the next 8 years.”
In his responses to Sen. Udall, D’Agostino offered more tidbits about the strategy that I have yet to see in the open source. Here’s one example:
The short-term risks associated with deferring CMRR-NF were assessed by NNSA, the Laboratory Directors and the Department of Defense to be manageable, with near term planning and production adjustments, which can provide sufficient production capacity (for approximately 30 newly manufactured pits/year and 90 reused pits/year starting in FY2021) to meet stockpile commitments over the subsequent decade….This production rate is less than the 50-80pits/year that CMRR-NF would have enabled, and NNSA projects that the higher production level is not required until the early 2030s. As such, the lower production rate of 30 pits/year, plus the availability of existing off-the-shelf pits, allows NNSA to provide the pits we need on the schedule approved by the Nuclear Weapons Council for at least the next decade. As part of the ongoing NNSA-DOD analysis, we are developing an enduring, long-term plutonium capability to provide a higher sustained rate of pit manufacturing ahead of the projected need in the 2030s.
In response to a different question, D’Agostino added:
With a planned production rate of 30 newly manufactured pits/year plus 90 reuse pits/year, the interim plutonium strategy will support upcoming LEPs with a combination of remanufactured and reused pits. There are technical hurdles to be overcome with regard to pit reuse, but the laboratories and NNSA are cautiously optimistic we will be able to successfully resolve them. While this approach does increase risk, DOD and NNSA agreed that this risk was manageable, and we would still be able to meet DOD requirements.