Earlier this month, efforts to build a jobs-rich nuclear weapons component factory in South Carolina reached a milestone that boosters hoped would keep construction plans on track over the next decade.
The National Nuclear Security Administration finalized a study that said the factory would not have a major effect on the environment at the Savannah River Site, the 310-square mile weapons complex near Aiken that would house the plant.
But the Nov. 5 announcement occurred at virtually the same time Joe Biden was in the process of winning the presidency — and as Biden prepares to take office in January, questions are surfacing about the factory’s future.
President Donald Trump’s plans for the pit factory almost certainly will be reviewed by Biden to see if it’s worth continuing the effort as envisioned, say national defense experts and others who track issues at SRS.
Depending on Biden’s priorities, plans for the SRS pit factory could be scaled back, slowed down or abandoned. The SRS factory could generate 1,000 jobs or more, preliminary estimates show.
Key concerns about the pit factory, as proposed, include whether the United States needs all of the plutonium pits that would be produced at SRS, whether the work could be done at a more experienced nuclear site in New Mexico and whether the project is too expensive.
While President Barack Obama had expressed support for production of new pits during his administration, the Trump Administration had taken a more aggressive posture toward increasing and updating the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, according to Bloomberg News and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Among the priorities are newly designed weapons that would need a fresh supply of plutonium from a factory like the one proposed for SRS, federal officials say.
“This is one of the pieces of the overall modernization program that the new administration will have no choice but to take a very hard look at,’’ said Kingston Reif, who tracks nuclear weapons issues for the Arms Control Association. “The United States needs to have and should have the capability to make plutonium pits for nuclear warheads. But the question is whether the current plans are necessary and executable.’’
The pit factory is expected to cost at least $4.6 billion. It would be established at the site of SRS’s unfinished mixed oxide fuel factory, a failed project that cost taxpayers at least $5 billion before the federal government quit the effort about two years ago. The incomplete mixed oxide fuel plant plant would be converted for use as the pit plant. The converted fuel plant would be one of two pit factories that would serve the country, with the other near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The more than 1,000 jobs the pit factory would create in South Carolina are on the minds of SRS backers. The site needs new missions, and manufacturing pits to keep the nation safe is a good way to add to the capabilities at SRS, supporters say.
“Once this place is operational and producing the pits, it would probably be a few thousand jobs that would go on in perpetuity,’’ said Jim Marra, executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness.
Efforts to reach the Biden transition team for comment were unsuccessful. But SRS boosters, including Danny Black of the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance, said they wouldn’t be surprised to see Biden slow down the project. Even under Trump, the pit factory at SRS was an ambitious effort, Black said.
“Changing administrations certainly brings this back into question,’’ Black said. “I was under the impression the incoming administration may not be as hip to do it.’’
Representatives of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness and the SRS Community Reuse Organization said they want to know more about how the change in administrations would affect plans for the pit factory in South Carolina.
“It seems like SRS is still in the works to be considered; it’s just will they change the direction here with the new administration?’’ said Rick McLeod, director of the Community Reuse group.
Congress is still debating how much funding to provide for the SRS pit factory in the next fiscal year. Including the Los Alamos project, the overall expected request for funding tops $10 billion in the next five years, according to budget data examined by the the Arms Control Association in Washington.
Reif and other experts say they can’t imagine the plant could be constructed for $4.6 billion by 2030, when the government wants to begin producing 50 pits each year at SRS. Another 30 pits would be produced at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons site, a facility that already has some limited ability to produce plutonium pits. The cost to upgrade facilities at Los Alamos would be about $3 billion.
Explosive ‘bowling balls’
Plutonium pits are the triggers for many nuclear weapons. They’re spheres about the size of a bowling ball that are made of plutonium, the deadly radioactive metal. Many aging pits are stored at the Pantex defense site in Texas.
In addition to its effectiveness in nuclear bombs, plutonium can cause cancer in people exposed to even small amounts. Environmentalists are concerned about the amount of radioactive waste that would be produced at the new pit factories.
If the pit factories in South Carolina and New Mexico are built, material would be sent from Pantex to the Savannah River Site and Los Alamos. The material would be reprocessed, and fresh pits would then be sent back to Pantex for insertion into nuclear weapons, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Nuclear weapons critics estimate 7.5 tons of plutonium could be brought to South Carolina alone. That follows years of efforts to get rid of plutonium that had been left there because the mixed oxide fuel plant had failed.
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, said he expects Biden to develop his own plan that will review nuclear policies and set priorities, which would affect the pit plant effort.
That could come in the form of a new Nuclear Posture Review, a plan typically put together each time a new president comes into office. Or it could be an alteration of the existing Trump review, he said.
“Whatever format it is going to take, I think he wants to take a fresh look at what the nuclear posture should be,’’ Kristensen said. “All administrations do that, but I think we can expect he might want to trim some of the requirements in the Trump Administration’’ plan.
That includes reviews of the need for new nuclear weapons, he said.
None of that means Biden won’t ultimately follow through with plans for a pit plant at Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site.
Many experts agree the United States needs to keep its nuclear weapons arsenal fresh and reliable, and pits can essentially become stale years after they are made.
Reif and Kristensen said they expect the Biden administration will support some effort to produce more pits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the SRS pit factory would be developed as proposed.
For now, plans are moving ahead. The government has 285 people working on the project design and SRS plans to send 25 people to Los Alamos to learn about pit production over the next few years. The site already has sent five people to New Mexico, said Jeff Allison, a top Nuclear Security Administration manager at SRS.
Los Alamos is the only place in the country that makes pits, although not on a large scale. Facilities there would be upgraded to make more pits.
“We’ve never actually made a pit (at SRS), so we don’t have that skill craft, per se,’’ Allison told the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council in October. During his presentation, he said SRS staff members will “ basically stand beside the people who are operating their facilities out there and learn how to make pits.’’
Even with that effort, gaining the expertise for large-scale pit production won’t be easy. The Department of Energy’s inspector general recently said the agency, which manages the Savannah River Site, “faces challenges’’ in pit production because the nation hasn’t produced pits in large scale in decades.
“Due to the significant lapse in pit production, the nation lost much of its expertise in pit manufacturing following the closure of Rocky Flats,’’ the now shuttered national production facility, the inspector general’s Nov. 18 report said.
One question about the need for the factory — at least as proposed — centers on how long it takes pits in nuclear weapons to become stale. Kristensen said pits can last capably for up to 100 years, if not longer. Most of the pits in the United States arsenal were made in the 1970s and 1980s, records show.
“There’s no doubt we need them,’’ Kristensen said of pits for nuclear weapons. “But there’s nothing that indicates that plutonium pits are wearing out’’ rapidly.
Some officials and Savannah River Site supporters say the government needs to start planning for their replacement now.
By the time a U.S. plant is at full production capacity, some of the existing pits will be nearing the end of their useful lives and existing weapons will need to be replenished, some experts say. The U.S. has nearly 4,000 nuclear warheads.
The government has been discussing how to replace aging plutonium pits for much of the past 20 years. In the early 2000s, the Bush Administration also entertained plans for a pit plant at SRS.
“The need to produce 80 pits per year has been echoed by multiple administrations since 2008,’’ U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-SC, said in a statement. “Current studies show growth in primary performance uncertainty at pit ages greater than 80-100 years old. It would be irresponsible to continue using aged plutonium pits whose safety and surety attributes may be unpredictable and time is of the essence.’’
Wilson, whose district includes SRS, said he’ll work with the new administration but will emphasize that the Savannah River Site is more than capable of producing plutonium pits for the first time. The site produced tritium and plutonium during the Cold War for use in nuclear weapons.
“The Savannah River Site has decades of experience in manufacturing and handling of nuclear materials, accompanied by a proven record of safety,’’ Wilson said.
Efforts to reach U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s office for comment were unsuccessful. The South Carolina Republican, a Trump ally, has been a staunch supporter of SRS missions.
Another key reason to build the plant at SRS — aside from the more than 1,000 jobs it would generate — centers on the need to develop new types of nuclear weapons, boosters of the plant say.
New weapon drives plan
Updated weapons on the drawing boards would need a fresh supply of plutonium pits. One that is being pushed is the W-87-1, a modernized weapon that is supposed to be safer to handle and more efficient, experts say.
“We do need to modernize our weapons program and our weapons capabilities,’’ SRS supporter Marra said.“This serves a purpose of deterring other nations and keeping our nation safe.’’
A Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson said the SRS pit factory is necessary because the United States has not had the ability to manufacture large numbers of pits since 1992, when the Rocky Flats weapons site closed in Colorado.
Concerns have arisen about whether the nation needs two pit production facilities. But Shayela Hassan, the NNSA spokesperson, said the United States plans to build pit factories at SRS and at Los Alamos for security reasons. Having a factory in more than one place “supports resilience from external threats and hazards,’’ Hassan said.’
It also allows flexibility that will keep production going if one plant experiences a shutdown, Hassan said. Hassan noted that the shell of the mixed oxide fuel plant makes SRS a good spot for one of the two pit factories.
The MOX plant “provides the opportunity to achieve pit production in a facility designed for the security and safety requirements required for plutonium operations,’’ Hassan said.
Still, some politicians and nuclear watchdogs say converting the mixed oxide fuel plant, known as MOX, to a pit plant may not be as simple or cost-effective as it sounds.
“This isn’t like … remodeling a bowling alley into a restaurant,’’ U.S. Rep. Adam Smith said in a Bloomberg story earlier this year. During an Armed Services Committee meeting, the Washington state Democrat said he was concerned that “we are going to spend billions of dollars, just like we did on the MOX facility, to get nothing,’’ Bloomberg reported.
The MOX plant was years behind schedule and as much as $12 billion dollars over budget before the government pulled the plug. The shutdown reinforced concerns that surplus weapons grade plutonium brought to SRS from across the country as feedstock for the plant would be stranded in South Carolina.
Ultimately, after years of disputes, the U.S. Department of Energy agreed this past fall to pay the state more than $500 million and move all of the plutonium to an out-of-state disposal area in the next 15 years.
Tom Clements, who heads Savannah River Site Watch, said South Carolina could face the same problem if any plutonium is brought to the state and the pit plant is never completed. He estimates 7.5 tons of plutonium would be brought into South Carolina for the pit facility.
Like other nuclear safety groups, Clements opposes the plutonium pit factory, saying it is dangerous to build and not needed. Clements’ organization and others spoke against the plant at a hearing last year in Aiken County.
“South Carolina could be left holding the plutonium bag,’’ Clements said in a recent news release. “It’s clear that the plutonium bomb plant at SRS is being driven by contractors and boosters who stand to profit by making South Carolina ground zero for an unacceptable new nuclear arms race that endangers national security and that places our state at environmental risk.”