Congress Pushes Back on Nuke Agency’s Unnecessary Plutonium Buildup

A plutonium puck. (Photo: DOE; illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recently announced a new plan to convert a facility designed to reduce the nation’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium into a production site for creating new plutonium cores for nuclear warheads. This abrupt reversal is based on a seemingly arbitrary Congressional requirement—created at the behest of the Departments of Energy and Defense—to produce new warhead cores. Some in Congress have pushed back on the plan but they should go a step further and debate the underlying requirement.

The facility in question, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX), located at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, is an all-too-typical NNSA construction project. Initially undertaken as part of a nuclear nonproliferation deal with Russia, the facility was intended to convert plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. But years of mismanagement led to the project going 750 percent over budget and decades behind schedule, which gave Russia an excuse to pull out of the deal entirely. Even NNSA now admits that the facility has no mission.

There’s a difference of at least $10 billion between some of the options and Congress still has the opportunity to cancel the entire project before it begins.

On paper the plan to repurpose this boondoggle into a facility that could actually help NNSA achieve its mission makes sense. The problem is, the agency hasn’t shown that this new mission is necessary.

Congressional Opposition to Moving Plutonium Production to South Carolina

Since the Cold War, the United States has built the delicate and dangerous plutonium cores of nuclear warheads at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The NNSA, a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department, has the capacity to build 30 plutonium cores, known as “pits,” per year in the existing infrastructure at the lab.

They have long claimed the need for more pit production capacity, but haven’t been able to back their numbers up. NNSA has tried, and failed, to expand the capacity at Los Alamos to meet the claimed need. The agency previously spent half a billion dollars on designing a new building at the lab before canceling the project because of ballooning costs and schedule delays. The latest plan would see part of this mission moved across the country to the partially constructed MOX facility at the Savannah River Site. Producing plutonium pits at the site would be a completely new mission for Savannah River and would ultimately cost almost $10 billion more than the agency’s alternative plan to expand plutonium production capacity at Los Alamos, according to new documents obtained by Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Savannah River Site Watch.

Either way, if all of these interlocking parts are not matched up as part of an overall strategy than there’s only going to be more waste, fraud, and abuse and it is the average American taxpayer who will pay the price.

Predictably, the plan has caused disagreement within Congress about the best path forward. Many of the Senators on the committees of jurisdiction are happy to go with NNSA’s preferred plan. But Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has been a staunch advocate for the MOX project and does not want to see it repurposed for a new mission.

The New Mexico delegation is also opposing to the new plan—they don’t want to see the plutonium mission moved away from their state. “This proposal risks time, money and national security goals,” Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Congress Considers the Future of MOX

This disagreement has led to several potential futures for the MOX project. There are currently four pieces of legislation in play that will decide the future of the MOX facility and any plan to repurpose it. There are House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and House and Senate versions of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. Each has slightly different language.

For example, the House NDAA requires continued construction for MOX but allows the Secretary of Energy to waive the requirement if he certifies that the Department will still dispose of the weapons grade plutonium using different technology and at less cost. (Secretary of Energy Rick Perry did this last month, but the bill text was completed beforehand.) The bill would also require an independent assessment of all pit production options and does not yet authorize the Department to repurpose the MOX building.

The other chamber took a different tack. The Senate NDAA prohibits the Energy Department from attempting to terminate the MOX project or “to convert the MOX facility to be used for any purpose other than its original mission.” The bill does not include the waiver language and does not provide any additional direction on plutonium pit production options.

The House FY 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations bill contains similar language to require continued MOX construction unless the Energy Secretary provides the waiver. But the Committee went a step further, harshly criticizing NNSA for disregarding Congressional direction to provide specific information on their pit production plans, including a budget and updated scope.

“The NNSA's continued inability to produce a transparent plan to establish a pit production capability that includes a resource-loaded schedule that can be independently verified for reasonableness creates significant concerns,” the bill states. The Committee ordered the agency to produce a detailed report on such plans before funding is provided.

The Senate FY 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations bill has the strongest language, specifically providing funding for the Department to begin terminating the MOX project for good. The legislation also requires the Department to contract with a third party to provide an independent assessment of pit production alternatives before funding is provided for any plan.

It remains to be seen exactly what the conference to reconcile these bills will produce and if MOX will manage to hang on for one more year. But even as Congress proceeds with caution, requiring new studies and requesting information before any option is decided, there’s one important point that’s not being discussed: the basis for this entire plan.

Why 80 Pits Per Year?

The NNSA has long claimed that it needs more capacity to produce new plutonium pits beyond the 30 per year that can be accomplished at existing Los Alamos facilities.

In a letter to the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee last month, the Project On Government Oversight was joined by Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Savannah River Site Watch in requesting justification for this expanded capacity. NNSA has over 14,000 plutonium cores already constructed and in storage, many of them specifically designated for potential reuse in new nuclear weapons as part of a “strategic reserve.” And each time the agency submitted exorbitant and unsupported requests for additional capacity, those requests withered under Congressional scrutiny. In the mid-2000s NNSA claimed it needed a facility capable of producing 450 pits per year. After Congress questioned the need for this capacity, they revised their claim to accommodate a proposed site that could produce 125 pits per year. That number didn’t stand up to Congressional inquiry either. Ultimately, the agency settled on 80 pits per year without ever publicly making the case that that number is necessary for national defense.

Despite the agency’s inability to demonstrate that 30 pits per year will not suffice, Congress made plutonium pit production capacity a legal requirement in the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. By 2027 the agency must be able to demonstrate its ability to produce 80 “war reserve” pits per year. But it is for some unknown future that the agency claims it needs to be able to produce new pits and the requirement is nothing more than an earmark for the nuclear labs.

A 2006 report by the authoritative independent science advisory group known as JASON found that the 14,000 warhead pits “have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years.” The oldest are barely 50 years old; there’s no doubt that they can be utilized should the need arise. A 2012 follow-on study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that the “graceful aging of plutonium also reduces the immediate need for a modern high-capacity manufacturing facility to replace pits in the stockpile.”

Refurbished pits are already being successfully used in the agency’s warhead Life Extension Programs. Even though the NNSA has begun what will be a 30-year effort to update several of its warhead classes, none of those updates will require new plutonium cores.

How Much and For What?

Expanded pit production would be for a series of future potential “Interoperable Warheads” that could cost taxpayers over $40 billion. The proposed interoperable warheads program is another project NNSA has struggled to get off the ground. Development of the first interoperable warhead began in 2012 but was halted in 2014 because the Navy didn’t support the program. NNSA had planned to restart the development and design of the warhead this year and asked for $53 million to do so in its FY 2019 budget request.

There’s Congressional disagreement about this program, as well. The House Appropriations Committee redirected funding for the warheads in its FY 2019 spending bill to a study examining the feasibility of using life-extended warheads instead of making new ones. Additionally, the Committee did not provide any funding for a new pit production facility. By declining to fund the development of the interoperable warheads they removed the only potential programmatic driver for continuing to require the agency to be able to produce 80 pits per year.

It remains unclear why taxpayers should be expected to fund such an expensive new pit production endeavor if the Defense Department, the NNSA, and Congress aren’t in agreement about whether it’s truly required.

And make no mistake, this plan will be expensive. NNSA’s analysis found that any way this project is sliced, it’s going to cost taxpayers over $10 billion. The cheapest alternative—to build a new moderately sized facility at Los Alamos—will cost $14 billion over the project’s lifetime. Repurposing MOX is the most expensive option, costing almost $28 billion overall.

NNSA warns that the “path forward should not be decided solely on lowest cost.” But there’s a difference of at least $10 billion between some of the options and Congress still has the opportunity to cancel the entire project before it begins.

Billions Over Budget with No Accountability

This latest proposal to repurpose the MOX facility is only the most recent development in NNSA’s seemingly endlessly evolving plan to replace plutonium production facilities at Los Alamos. Initially, the agency planned to construct the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement ̶ Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at the lab to replace older pit production infrastructure. While still in the design phase the agency spent over $400 million in taxpayer funds, and the cost estimates for construction ballooned to 492 percent over the initial budget before the entire project was scrapped in 2014.

The agency has now broken the project into two parts, one of which will be to adapt an existing facility at Los Alamos and install new plutonium analysis equipment. This part alone is already 100 percent over its baseline budget and is likely to cost $2.9 billion to complete. The refurbished facility should ensure the lab can produce at least 30 new pits per year.

The second part of the plan is to repurpose the MOX facility. But a 2017 review of this strategy by the Government Accountability Office found that the agency still does not have a complete schedule for the work nor has it met crucial management requirements. In addition to failing to demonstrate a concrete strategic need for at least 80 pits per year, the agency is asking Congress to fund a second project without first demonstrating the ability to manage it.

A significant part of the U.S. national defense strategy is having a robust nuclear deterrent. But there are a lot of reasons to look at what is being done in that name. It remains vital that Congress hold agencies accountable before handing out taxpayer dollars. The public deserves to know that their elected representatives drilled down on agency and contractor claims to uncover the truth and ensure our money is being spent wisely.

If the interoperable warhead is not needed or wanted by the Defense Department, then new pit production is not needed, and the MOX facility can be terminated once and for all. If it is, Congress should ensure that any path forward will be appropriately sized and scoped to meet that mission need. Either way, if all of these interlocking parts are not matched up as part of an overall strategy than there’s only going to be more waste, fraud, and abuse and it is the average American taxpayer who will pay the price.