ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The federal agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile recommended Thursday that the production of the plutonium cores that trigger nuclear warheads be split between South Carolina and New Mexico.
Officials said the plan will boost the resiliency and flexibility of weapons manufacturing by not relying on a single site.
The National Nuclear Security Administration’s recommendation comes as the United States looks to ramp up production of the plutonium cores to 80 per year by 2030, citing the “evolving and uncertain geopolitical landscape,” according to a joint statement from U.S. Energy Department and Department of Defense officials.
“We share a deep commitment to recapitalizing the capabilities the United States’ needs to deter its adversaries and assure our allies and partners,” the statement said.
At least 30 of the plutonium cores each year will be produced at Los Alamos National Laboratory — the northern New Mexico site where the atomic bomb was developed decades ago. Production of the cores has been based there since the 1990s, although none have been turned out since 2011 because of a series of safety lapses and concerns about a lack of accountability.
At least 50 of the plutonium cores, also known as pits, will be produced each year at the U.S. Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina under the new plan, which calls for repurposing a planned U.S. fuel processing facility to accommodate production.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster expressed support for moving plutonium core production to Savannah River.
In New Mexico, U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall had pushed to keep the work in the state, given the hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars in federal funding at stake. They said in a statement with U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Michelle Lujan Grisham, all Democrats, that they were pleased that Los Alamos would be able to expand production of the plutonium cores under the plan with a multi-billion dollar investment.
But they had hoped the expansion of plutonium pit production would bring a long-planned modernization of facilities at the New Mexico lab.
Internal government reports drafted earlier this year indicate serious and persistent safety issues still plague both Los Alamos and Savannah River, according to a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity.
Before the mission of making plutonium cores came to Los Alamos, there were concerns by lab officials and elected officials about shifting from research and development to manufacturing.