Plutonium pit production approach shaped by Defense, Energy dialogue

February 15, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Defense’s desire for production assurances and fallbacks directly influenced last year’s plutonium pit recommendation, which notably involves a two-pronged approach and a handful of ramp-up milestones.

The U.S. Department of Energy “is getting on with things like two sites for plutonium to provide us redundancy if we have a problem in one area. That was a long, hard discussion between DOE and DOD,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters Peter Fanta said Thursday morning at the Nuclear Deterrence Summit. “Do not put this on DOE. DOD stood up and said, ‘We need redundancy, we need resiliency.’ And that is part of the process.”

In May 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the DOD together recommended producing plutonium pits at the Savannah River Site and at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Pits are nuclear weapon cores; the NNSA is a semiautonomous energy department agency.

Eighty pits per year are needed by 2030, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. Fifty a year would be pumped out at SRS, and 30 a year would be pumped out at Los Alamos, according to the recommendation.

“DOD stood up and said, ’We’ve looked at your alternatives, and we believe there is value in having two sites,” Fanta said in a follow-up interview.

The defense executive – who often referenced the Nuclear Posture Review – in the same interview said the DOD had the chance to sway pit production strategy relatively early on.

“Did we have that opportunity 10, 15 years ago when they were looking at something else? Not necessarily,” he said. “We weren’t at the same level of sophistication … but now we’re having those discussions.”

Fanta at multiple points Thursday emphasized that the DOE and the DOD are on the same page: “You’re not going to see a disconnect between what we’re saying and what they’re saying.” Fanta even joked that if you’re looking for divisiveness, that discussion is elsewhere.

Kelly Cummins, a NNSA program executive officer for strategic materials, on Thursday agreed with Fanta, saying there was “no daylight” between them. The two officials were on the same discussion panel.

Cummins also described Fanta as a “key” player in modernization efforts.