WASHINGTON ― President Joe Biden’s nominee to oversee nuclear warhead development, Jill Hruby, said Thursday the U.S. should continue plans to ramp up production of plutonium cores, a key component in nuclear weapons, by using two sites.
Federal officials, under President Donald Trump, set a deadline of 2030 for increased production of the plutonium cores or pits, with work split between Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina ― which is 25 percent into a refit.
At stake are jobs and billions of federal dollars to upgrade buildings or construct new factories, and it’s been an open question whether Biden would review those plans.
Hruby, who would lead the National Nuclear Security Administration, said at her Senate confirmation hearing that expanding pit production is the “biggest issue” facing the agency. While Los Alamos is on track to produce 30 pits per year by 2026, plans to produce 50 pits per year at Savannah River have slipped, pushing the 80-pit target to “somewhere between 2030 and 2035,” she said.
As Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., described it, nuclear modernization efforts ― which include five warhead programs and facility recapitalizations ― are fueling NNSA’s highest workload since the 1980s. The organization is a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department.
Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Angus King, I-Maine, prompted Hruby to affirm that the 80-pit goal is part of nuclear maintenance and modernization vital for deterrence and peace.
“The number of pits that are projected to be needed are a minimum of 80 pits per year. That’s a significant capability at Los Alamos. If we were to do it all there, it would require much more infrastructure investment,” Hruby said, adding that the expansion at Savannah River “allows us to have a cost-effective program, use the talents across the NNSA complex.”
The panel’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe, whose support for an NNSA budget increase in 2019 fueled one of several clashes with then-Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, recounted Thursday that he’d personally intervened with then-President Trump. In a sign Hruby’s nomination is in good shape, Inhofe said he agrees with her priorities around weapons programs, infrastructure and the workforce ― and he elicited her agreement to keep him informed of her progress.
However, one lawmaker was critical of the rising costs of nuclear weapons. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren pointed to a “staggering” 29 percent increase in NNSA’s newly projected costs for sustaining and modernizing warheads over the next 25 years to $505 billion. Calling this “out of control,” Warren worried that overruns would crowd out the Energy Department’s important nonproliferation budget.
“I think we need to get better at cost estimation and schedule estimation within the department,” Hruby agreed, calling it a “top priority” for her.
But Warren shot back: “You don’t just need to get better. Based on where we are right now, you need to get a lot better.”
King, a former co-chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, also leveled pointed questions over cyber protections for nuclear weapons. After the nominee for NNSA’s deputy administrator, Frank Rose, said in the same hearing that he plans to quickly fill the role of NNSA’s chief information officer, King said he wants to see more: an “all-hands-on deck, urgent pursuit of cyber defense.”
“I’m fine with appointing a new CIO, but I’d like you to stand up a team that aggressively red teams your systems to test them,” King said. “I want people who are paid to hack your system to demonstrate whether or not you are in fact secure. There is no important cyber protection than that of nuclear command and control, and communication.”
When Rose said he would, if confirmed, make the recommendations a priority, King responded: “If you don’t, I’ll come and find you.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.