A Pentagon official backed out of a plutonium pit production briefing in Columbia this week because the Biden administration is “engaged in a full review of the program,” according to Rick Lee, the chairman of the S.C. Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters Drew Walter was scheduled to make a presentation about pit production – the crafting of nuclear weapon cores, potentially in both South Carolina and New Mexico – “and why the Department of Defense feels it’s imperative that we get underway with the program,” Lee said.
But until the new administration settles on “what they want to do moving forward,” the chairman continued, Walter “would not be available for that kind of gathering.”
Exactly what the purported review covers or drills down on is unclear. A big question, Savannah River Site Watch Director Tom Clements suggested Wednesday, “is if there is any kind of formal review of pits and overall nuclear weapons modernization at DOE and DOD.”
Lee’s remarks, made at an hours-long meeting of the Nuclear Advisory Council on Monday, are in line with comments made earlier this year by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his deputy, Kathleen Hicks. Some analysts and observers have predicted greater pit production scrutiny under Biden.
During his confirmation process, Austin pledged a serious assessment of the nation’s nuclear modernization programs, “including the country’s capacity to produce plutonium pits” and other components. Austin also did not explicitly endorse the two-site solution proposed in 2018: producing dozens of pits, triggers at the heart of modern nuclear weapons, at the Savannah River Site and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Hicks aligned herself with Austin when responding to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“As Secretary Austin testified, maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent is critical to our nation’s defense,” she explained. “If confirmed, I will see that the department thoroughly studies all proposed plans and alternatives to ensure we are on the most cost-effective path to modernize U.S. nuclear forces.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican, has said he wants “to work with the cabinet members in the interest of the extraordinary opportunities we have at Savannah River Site.” Wilson’s district, South Carolina’s 2nd, includes SRS and all of Aiken County.
Walter at a virtual event last year said funding and authorizations represent the “biggest” hurdles faced by pit production, a multibillion-dollar cross-country endeavor. Time is also a major factor.
“I, and the rest of the Department of Defense, fully support the two-site strategy,” Walter said in May 2020. “But I will emphasize: I don’t want to see this movie a fifth time. We need to have picked this as our way ahead, and stick to it.”
Federal law requires the production of 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030.