A group of nuclear weapons managers agreed on Tuesday that manufacturing more plutonium cores for warheads would be key to modernizing the national arsenal as a deterrent against rival countries.
But during an online forum, a few of the officials working at facilities with nuclear weapons programs also looked at a military leader’s claim in recent months that the United States is incapable to produce a whole new nuclear weapon, unlike Russia and China.
Defense consultant Peter Huessy asked the panel to interpret comments from Admiral Charles Richard, chief of the US Strategic Command, based on their work on the ground.
“My thinking is this: by policy, we are not supposed to design new [weapons]. We are also not being asked to do it, ”said Mark Martinez, who oversees mission support and testing at the Nevada National Security site.
The current focus is on extending life, Martinez said, referring to the program to replace or upgrade aging components, including softball-sized plutonium cores – or pits – which detonate warheads.
Plans call for the Los Alamos National Laboratory to produce 30 pits by 2026 and for the Savannah River site in South Carolina to produce 50 pits by the 2030s.
In April, Richard told the House and Senate armed forces committees that Russia was overtaking the United States in nuclear modernization and China was gaining ground.
Richard argued that America hadn’t done any upgrades recently while Russia upgraded 80% of its inventory. He also said the United States is at a standstill when it comes to engineering weapons.
“We currently have no capacity to manufacture a new weapon,” Richard told lawmakers.
His comments sparked a backlash from anti-nuclear watchdogs, who accused him of making fear-mongering and misleading statements to push for increased nuclear spending.
They argued that some of the future pits would equip new warheads being developed for land and submarine-launched missiles.
“This accounting could surprise Congress and defense contractors who are in the midst of a $ 1.5 trillion nuclear modernization program launched after the Obama administration negotiated the New START agreement with Russia.” the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation said in a newsletter. “Entrepreneurs are having a blast.
But Huessy said the nuclear stock has been reduced to 3,800 warheads and has remained at that level for some time.
The United States has also stopped developing new platforms or delivery systems, he said, adding that the next one is not expected to be rolled out until 2029.
“We literally took a vacation,” Huessy said.
Martinez said the life extension program was strengthening the country’s ability to produce nuclear weapons as needed, which he described as working “large muscle groups.”
New pits will rebuild the existing warheads into modernized warheads that are essentially like new, said the chief contractor of Savannah River.
“I think the well fabrication will be the real challenge,” said Stuart MacVean, President and CEO of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions LLC.
Officials with the National Nuclear Security Administration said the previous estimate that Savannah River would meet its well production target in 2030 was unrealistic and it could take until 2035.
Meanwhile, the most recent cost estimate for commissioning the Savannah River surface mill has risen from $ 4.6 billion to $ 11 billion.
Critics said Savannah River had no experience producing wells. But MacVean said they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They will use equipment similar to that used by the Los Alamos laboratory.
“LANL is making great strides,” MacVean said. “We are connected to them to make sure we learn from them.