DoE Nuclear Agency cannot fully meet the production deadline for warhead cores, the agency informs the legislature

The National Nuclear Security Administration cannot meet a legal obligation to manufacture at least 80 new plutonium cores for ICBMs in 2030, the agency’s acting chief told lawmakers on Thursday.

With the planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SPPPF) with a delay of up to five years, “Based on our latest information, we judge that the 2030- [deadline] … will be unavailable, “said Charles Verdon, acting administrator of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), in the final minutes of a hearing of the House Strategic Forces subcommittee.

This cat had been a little out of the bag since the end of May when Jill Hruby, the Biden government’s candidate for the permanent administrator of the NNSA, said the Senate Armed Forces Committee that SRPPF at the Savannah River site in Aiken, SC, would be up to five years late.

Verdon’s testimony on Thursday, however, made it clear that the NNSA’s other proposed mining facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory without the SRPPF – which is to be built by the partially constructed compound oxide fuel production facility in the Savannah River F-Area – will not carry the burden can have its own by 2030.

Both mines are said to eventually be able to increase their production capacities and staff to single-handedly produce the 80 mines they need annually, but the NNSA has not said when this might be possible. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

At least during the hearing, Verdon said the NNSA is “very confident” that the Los Alamos facility, an extension of the site’s PF-4 plutonium facility, can produce 30 war-ready pits annually from 2026 onwards, 50 more to be added per year in 2030, but that has now slipped to 2032 or 2035, Verdon said on Thursday, repeating what the NNSA did on Jan. his detailed budget request for 202222.

According to US law, the NNSA must build at least 80 war-ready pits by 2030. By March 1 each year, the Secretary of Energy is to certify to Congress that the NNSA is on track to meet this deadline. If the Secretary of Energy cannot confirm this, the Department of Defense, through the Nuclear Weapons Council, can tell Congress which parts of the DOE need to cut their budgets in order to put more money into building the NNSA’s mining company.

The Department of Energy did not respond to a request on Thursday whether Jennifer Granholm, Minister of Energy, sworn in on February 25, had confirmed to Congress that the NNSA budget could meet the legally binding deadlines for the mine. The Biden government hadn’t even released its provisional lean budget by March 1.

Meanwhile, the Republican minority on the Senate Armed Forces Committee had not received a notice from the Pentagon as of Thursday about what parts of the DOE the Nuclear Weapons Council believed could be cut to provide more funding for mines in fiscal year 2022 or beyond.

The Savannah River mine will cost about $ 11 billion to build, according to the NNSA in its latest budget proposal: almost two and a half times as much as a preliminary estimate that dates back at least to 2018. The Los Alamos mine will cost approximately $ 4 billion to build, the NNSA estimated in April, Quoting numbers from the critical decision of the project 1 review. The NNSA estimates that it will cost about $ 30 billion to run both plants for about 50 years.

Both NNSA mines will initially produce plutonium cores for W87-1 warheads, one of two planned tips for the silo-based Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) ICBMs that the Air Force has ordered from Northrop Grumman to power Minuteman III’s current fleet . to replace missiles. W87-1 will replace the current W78 warhead.

The Air Force plans to order more than 650 GBSD missiles. The initial cost will be at least $ 95 billion, while the total life cycle cost, according to government estimates, could reach $ 264 billion.

Progressive Democrats in the House and Senate and progressive voices from outside the government have called for the GBSD program to be slowed down or downsized, and for short-term reliance on a life-extended Minuteman III fleet. The Biden administration has rejected the call for the time being and requested funding to keep the program more or less on schedule.

However, the long-awaited Biden White House Nuclear Posture Review, due out around January, could require significant changes to land-based nuclear forces. If the review arrived in January, it would be in good time in time as the basis for a nuclear weapons budget that is significantly different from what Biden is aiming for in 2022. The review has not yet started but is “on the cusp,” Melissa Dalton, acting assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities, said at the hearing on Thursday. It was Dalton who said the posture check could arrive early next year.

First GBSD test flight after Thanksgiving ’23

The first scheduled test flight of a GBSD missile is scheduled for December 1, 2023 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Lt. Gen. James Dawkins, the Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said during the hearing.

The first ground-based strategic deterrent missiles, which go into silos and replace Minuteman III as vigilant pieces of the US nuclear arsenal, will do so without new pits. The first batch of next-generation ICBMs will use W87-0 warheads, which will emanate directly from some of today’s Minuteman III missiles. The warheads will be modified for the new missiles and qualified through flight tests, which, according to the Air Force, could start as early as 2023 or 2024.

There are theoretically several GBSD flight tests on the Air Force’s flight schedule for the calendar years 2023 and 2024. According to an environmental impact statement, the service was released in February.

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