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Heinrich grills NNSA deputy nominee over pit program

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By Tris DeRoma

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) grilled the nominee for principal deputy national security administrator last week about the plutonium pit program during senate Armed Services committee nomination hearing.

Heinrich asked Nominee William Bookless during the Nov. 29 hearing about why the NNSA felt it needed redundancy in Department of Energy’s plutonium pit manufacturing program but not in other parts of the mission that contribute to the maintenance of the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

The NNSA recently announced its plan to split the manufacturing work between the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Heinrich has spoken out against splitting the program, saying the manufacturing of all 80 pits per year should be done at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The sites are on track to manufacture 80 plutonium pits starting in 2030. LANL is expected to ramp up to 30 pits per year by 2030.

Heinrich asked Bookless about why they aren’t duplicating the highly-enriched uranium facilities at Y-12 in Tennessee the Pantex facility in Texas where high explosives are manufactured, or the tritium facility at Savannah River Site.

Bookless replied that for the most part, they don’t have a reason to.

“So, why do we need to duplicate the pit production facility at Los Alamos, at the risk of doubling the price and not meeting our life extension program time lines, but we don’t need to create resiliency and duplication in the rest of the program,” Heinrich said.

Bookless said they aren’t duplicating anything.

“I think for right now, for pit production, my understanding is we don’t have the capacity, so we aren’t duplicating at this stage,” Bookless said. “We are planning to have two locations going forward. We have no locations at the moment.”

Heinrich also asked about the logic of splitting the expertise between the two locations.

“If we split the expertise between two locations, aren’t you concerned that we could end up with two locations, neither of which could produce the pits we need?”

Bookless assured Heinrich that the expertise would remain at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“The expertise will continue to reside at the Los Alamos National Laboratory,” Bookless said before Heinrich continued his questioning.

“These aren’t widgets. It’s not easy to manufacture these things. It will be impossible to stand up a second facility without an enormous amount of time spent with the existing, very small pool of experts to make that possible, when we also need to stand up the first, primary production facility,” Heinrich said of the Los Alamos facility. “How are you going to balance those, and are you concerned about letting the time line slip that we need to hit for our life extension programs.”

Bookless said that if his nomination is successful, he would study the matter further.

“If confirmed, I look forward to going into this subject much deeper,” Bookless said.

In May, the NNSA announced that it’s going to split the Department of Energy’s plutonium pit production program between the lab and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The Department of Defense wants the two facilities to start producing 80 pits a year by 2030. The DoD wants 30 pits from Los Alamos and 50 from Savannah.

After the decision was announced, Heinrich criticized the decision. “DOE’s own estimates suggest standing up a second pit production mission will double the cost of modernizing this element of our nuclear deterrent, but as the courts are suggesting the plan is likely to involve even more flaws and inevitable delays,” he said through an earlier statement.

LANL is still on track to produce its alloted 30 pits per year by 2030, according to a laboratory spokesman Thursday.

“The plutonium manufacturing mission at the Laboratory will require a larger workforce in the future to meet the government’s requirements for pit production by 2030, as well as the necessary infrastructure and safety controls to support this mission,” the spokesman said. “The Laboratory is developing a plan to acquire, train, and retain staff to support the 30-plus pits-per-year mission. The Laboratory’s approach is to work closely with NNSA to assure that staffing levels and production milestones are met.”