Plutonium pits, often referred to as triggers, are a key component for nuclear weapons. They are essentially a small atom bomb that, when detonated inside a warhead, act as an extraordinarily hot match to ignite a much larger mass of thermonuclear fuel.
Most are about the size of a grapefruit. The small size makes thermonuclear warheads compact and lightweight enough to fit atop long-range missiles.
The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called on the National Nuclear Security Administration to make at least 80 pits a year by 2030. The NNSA requested a budget of $712 million, an increase of $351 million, or 97.2 percent, above the FY 2019 enacted level, to support continued progress to meet pit production requirements.
The current plan for the Savannah River Site is to repurpose the half-built complex that was originally intended to turn old nuclear weapons into reactor fuel to now revitalize America’s aging nuclear weapons, creating the capacity to make many hundreds more.
Savannah River Nuclear Solutions has been tasked with planning plutonium-pit production by repurposing the MOX facility by 2030.
That judgment has led critics to contend that the federal government is seeking a new generation of nuclear pits for reasons not of national security but of saber-rattling.
“No new pits are needed for any warhead,” Greg Mello, the executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, said recently. “There are thousands of pits stockpiled for possible reuse.”
In February of this year, Nicole Nelson-Jean, the manager of NNSA’s SRS Field Office, told attendees at the Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness meeting at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in North Augusta that the agency anticipates weapons-production activities increasing at SRS.
Nelson-Jean said part of the nation’s plutonium pit production would remain at Los Alamos.
“This two-prong alternative is an optimal path forward to meet pit-production requirements while managing the risk and costs associated with increasing production rates and maintaining existing plutonium operations at Los Alamos,” she said at the February meeting.
The Aiken County Council recently passed a resolution supporting the DOE’s NNSA’s decision to use SRS as one of two sites for plutonium pit production.
The resolution stated the “plutonium pit production mission is critical for our national security and important for both the future of SRS and for sustaining the economy in Aiken County.”
The controversial proposal by the U.S. Department of Energy to expand production of plutonium “pits”- the core of all nuclear weapons – will be the subject of a public forum in Aiken, South Carolina on Friday, June 14, 2019. The event is free and open to all members of the public.
According to organizers of the forum to be held at the Aiken Municipal Building Auditorium, the discussion will center on the Department of Energy’s lack of public engagement about the proposal and its potential environmental and health impacts.
According to a press release announcing the meeting, “The questionable proposal by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is to expand pit production at the Savannah River Site into the shuttered MOX plant – a totally new and unproven mission for SRS – and at the Los Alamos National Lab to 80 or more pits per year. Such pit production for new and “refurbished” nuclear weapons may help stimulate a new nuclear arms race. The vague proposal is far from finalized and is unauthorized and unfunded by Congress.”