Last spring, the Department of Energy quietly backed off a drive to produce 30 pits a year at the Los Alamos National Laboratory earlier than the agency’s long-established target of 2026, a recently published contract modification shows.
The April 30, 2019 modification to Triad National Security’s Los Alamos National Laboratory management and operations contract scrubs out a directive for the nonprofit consortium “to accelerate manufacture of War Reserve (WR) pits to meet 30 pits/year, 1 year ahead of schedule” and replaces it with a softer instruction “to achieve 30 pits/year by 2026, and provide a list of opportunities to accelerate the schedule.”
Triad is led by the University of California, the non-profit Battelle Memorial Institute, and Texas A&M University, with Fluor Corp. [FLR] and Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] as major industry subcontractors. The group officially took over management of Los Alamos on Nov. 1, 2018 from the for-profit Los Alamos National Security, led by the university and Bechtel National, with junior partners BWX Technologies [BWXT], and the company now known as Amentum and then known as AECOM.
However, the day before Triad wrapped up its contract transition — the Department of Energy announced the company’s potentially 10-year contract in June 2018 — the government modified the management and operations pact to include the now-scrapped directive to speed up pit production.
Since then, both DoE headquarters in Washington and Triad have refused to respond to multiple requests for comment about the effort to speed up pit production at the nation’s first nuclear weapons laboratory. The April 30 contract modification that softened the drive to hasten the pit-production schedule appeared on the agency’s website within the last week.
Years before Triad submitted its winning bid to manage Los Alamos, the Department of Energy said it wanted to begin producing war-reserve pits for W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile warheads at Los Alamos by 2024, ramping up to 30 pits annually by 2026. The goal appears in editions of the agency’s annual Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan dating back to the Barack Obama administration.
Los Alamos’ targeted pit output is part of the DoE’s strategy to produce 80 war-reserve pits annually by 2030, including 30 in New Mexico and 50 annually beginning in 2030 at the planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility: a pit factory to be fashioned from the partially completed plutonium recycling plant, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.
DoE, through its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration has acknowledged that casting 80 pits a year by 2030 will be very challenging. The pits are needed for W87-1 warheads that will tip planned Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), silo-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Air Force wants to replace some 400 Minuteman III missiles with GBSD missiles starting in 2030.