ICYMI: SASC Chairman Inhofe Questions Witnesses at SASC Department of Energy Hearing

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned witnesses this morning at a SASC hearing to receive testimony on the Department of Energy’s atomic energy defense programs.

Witnesses included the Hon. J. Richard Perry, Secretary of Energy; and the Hon. Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, Under Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration. 

Click to watch Sen. Inhofe’s remarks.

Remarks:

Inhofe: Last year the NNSA proposed to re-purpose the half-built MOX building, and of course that's been the main discussion for a long period of time and an area of confusion, but that's the one that's located in South Carolina to produce plutonium pits.

Los Alamos National Lab would still operate in the current facility in New Mexico producing 30 pits a year. While South Carolina I think would be in the neighborhood of some 50 more to meet the STRATCOM requirement — which is for 80 by 2030.

So, Secretary Perry, why don't you explain why the department chose last year to construct a plutonium pit production facility in South Carolina and what advantages would this option bring in addition to the current smaller capability in Los Alamos?

Perry: Mr. Chairman, I think for so many years, as you know as well as anyone in this room, the challenge that we've had with the Mixed Oxide facility in South Carolina, I don't want to relitigate that at all. What I would like to do is say thank you to the members who agreed that this was not a program that needed to go forward, and you had the courage to work with us and others to terminate that and then to transition that facility.

Inhofe: Yes, because you're talking about a very large investment that we've had in the past and we are interested in seeing what's the most we can get out of it now.

Perry: Yes, sir. And I think there is now—we are on a track that will take us to a reasonable development there. Los Alamos is and, as Senator Heinrich knows, will always be the center for pit production. The center of excellence in the world for plutonium pit production. Pit 0 through 30 will be done there. There is an additional $5 billion that is headed toward that facility in Los Alamos. It will be a substantial build up. They're going to continue to play, I will suggest, the lead role in the immediate out years.

As you mentioned, Mr. Chairman, by 2030, there will be a requirement to do 50 pits. And the decision was investigated, decision made that you could bifurcate that effort with the continual focus on Los Alamos and have pits 31 through 80 be done at the Savannah River site. We can discuss further about that decision-making, but both the DOD and the nuclear weapons world agree that is a legitimate, thoughtful way to go forward with the pit production. So there are some other potentials at Savannah River, as well, but the main legacy program that would come out of the repurposing of the MOX facility will be the development of those pits 31 through 80 at Savannah River.

Inhofe: Okay, I understand that, and I appreciate that very much.

Administrator Gordon-Hagerty, there are a lot of people speculating that we may not be able to reach those goals, and in fact, in the NNSA's own analysis it suggests that reaching the 80 by 2030 is going to be a problem. So no matter what the location of the production, how do you plan to mitigate in the event we don't make it?

Gordon-Hagerty: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And as the Secretary said, this is going to be a challenging undertaking for the NNSA and for our entire nuclear security enterprise. When the Nuclear Weapons Council determined that based on STRATCOM requirements, that we needed to produce not less than 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030, it was a challenge. I need not remind members of this committee that the United States has not had a plutonium pit production capability since the early 1990s, and it's well past time that we provide a resilient infrastructure for our nuclear weapon deterrent, and the focus of that is on plutonium pit production now and in the future.

In order to do that, we believe that a two-pronged strategy is the most affordable and optimal way to get to the 80 pits per year by 2030. And again, it's not less than 80 pits, so we have a lot of challenges ahead of us. We believe that our two-pronged approach where we're undertaking the investments, the significant investments, as the secretary stated, at Los Alamos, which will provide several hundred million dollars over several years in order to increase the production capacity, as well as the infrastructure necessary at Los Alamos, as well as the facility at South Carolina. We're making significant investments in that to undertake the preconceptual design, and we're seeking $410 million to continue that repurposing of the facility at South Carolina.

Inhofe: My time is expired, and I want to make sure we get to everyone here, but let's do this for the record. Let's look — when we see a staggering figure like $677 billion referring to the Hanford site, you know that doesn't seem achievable to me, and right now we're in the middle of a budget, and that sounds overwhelming. So I would like, for the record, for each one of you to spend some time to analyze how that can be diminished. I'm talking about changing — using grout instead of glass, or any number of things, for the record, not at this time.  Thank you very much. Senator Reed.

Click to watch Sen. Inhofe’s introduction.