Savannah River Site pit production approvals could be delayed by six months

Approvals on the plutonium pit production facility at the Savannah River Site could be delayed by six months.

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Jason Armstrong, manager of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Savannah River Field Office, told the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council on Monday afternoon the third major critical decision for the facility would come around April 1, 2025.

The Department of Energy uses a five-step critical decision process regarding its projects. The first decision, Critical Decision 0, determines that a need exists. The second decision, CD-1, sets a general plan to meet the need. The third decision, CD-2, sets a specific plan and costs to meet the need. The fourth decision, CD-3, is the start of construction. And the fifth and final decision, CD-4, is the start of operations.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review by the Department of Defense determined that 80 plutonium pits per year would be needed to maintain the nation’s nuclear stockpile as a deterrent and to achieve military objectives should deterrence fail.

On June 28, 2021, the NNSA announced that it had reached CD-1 with plans to build 50 pits per year at the Savannah River Site using the failed Mixed-Oxide (MOX) facility beginning from 2032 to 2035 and 30 pits per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory beginning in 2026. The NNSA said in a news release announcing its decision that the third critical decision, CD-2, would be made in the fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1, 2023 and ending on Sept. 30, 2024. During Armstrong’s update to the advisory council, Chairman Rick Lee asked Armstrong when to expect the third decision.

Armstrong looked toward Stuart MacVean, president and CEO of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the site’s manager and operator, who said the decision would come in the middle of fiscal year 2025 which begins on Oct. 1, 2024 and ends on Sept. 30, 2025.

Armstrong said he agreed with MacVean’s prediction.

“Our prediction that the unneeded SRS plutonium pit plant would continue to face significant delays and substantial cost increases is sadly being proven true,” said Tom Clements, director of the public interest group Savannah River Site Watch. “At this time when talk of nuclear war and Armageddon is being carelessly thrown around by both Russia and the U.S., cooler heads must prevail and plans for new plutonium pit plants and provocative new nuclear warheads must be cancelled. In the name of global peace and security, all parties must halt talk of nuclear war, stop actions stimulating a new nuclear arms race and sit down to negotiate disarmament, as required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.”

He showed a slide during his update that said the NNSA’s priority for 2023 and 2024 would be design engineering for the facility.

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions will be responsible for overall design integration according to the slide. Fluor, which is one of the parents to SRNS, will be responsible for the design. Merrick will be responsible for the design of glove boxes and other equipment. And Sandia National Laboratories will be responsible for the design of the security apparatus. MacVean added that the designs for the facility are around 40% completed.

However, Armstrong added that other activities continue on the project.

He said that contracts are in place to start demolition and removal of unneeded parts of the former Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility that’s being converted into the pit production facility.
“That’s really a big step forward that we’re going to see some actual work activity commencing,” Armstrong said.Armstrong also said a sand filter was being built for the facility. 

He said actual construction activities should start in 2023 or 2024. Armstrong added SRNS was looking at housing options for when construction activities begin in 2023 or 2024. Armstrong said “many folks from the administration” have been to the site to look at efficiencies to make sure the plant is built on time. He added that he and Stuart MacVean, president and CEO of site manager and operator Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, are working together with headquarters to get the facility built.  He said the budget numbers were “good” to get the facility built.

Armstrong said that staff from the offices of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Congressman Rick Allen, R-Augusta, have visited to learn about what the NNSA is doing at the site.