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Sunday, February 5th, 2023

GAO finds NNSA lacks comprehensive schedule or cost estimate for re-establishing plutonium pit production

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Despite being required to develop the ability to make at least 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) current plans fail to follow best practices, increasing the odds of costly increases and delays, according to an investigation from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In a new report, GAO noted that the NNSA lacks a comprehensive schedule outlining what it needs to achieve production capability and cost estimates for the work. It’s critical work, too – plutonium pits form the central core of nuclear weapons, being vital to triggering their explosions. The U.S. hasn’t manufactured them regularly since 1989, but by 2030, the NNSA has been directed to produce them regularly again at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site.

Just last year, officials testified that 80 pits per year would not be achievable by 2030.

Restarting pit production was deemed critical to maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile by NNSA in 2020. Congress tapped GAO to review NNSA’s plutonium pit production activities, including its plans, schedule, and cost. This includes plans to produce 30 pits per year at Los Alamos and another 50 pits per year at Savannah River, which would be NNSA’s largest investment in weapons production infrastructure to date.

GAO urged the NNSA administrator to guarantee the head of the plutonium modernization program to create a life cycle cost estimate for establishing NNSA’s pit production capability in line with GAO’s cost estimation best practices. Currently, NNSA has not developed such a cost estimate because of reported concerns over releasing preliminary or uncertain information. GAO questioned this, given that such estimates could improve decision-making and support budget decisions, and because NNSA already has cost information that it uses to develop its budget estimates and support projects’ critical decisions.

Based on NNSA’s fiscal year 2023 budget justification, GAO found between at least $18 billion to $24 billion in potential costs for the production of 80 pits per year. A more comprehensive schedule and life cycle cost estimate, GAO argued, could improve the agency’s overall decision-making and boost its efficiency and efficacy, along with the quality of information given to Congress.