July 24, 2024

The director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory announced on Wednesday that the lab aims to produce 30 nuclear weapon cores per year by 2028.

“At the moment the plan we’re working to is 2028,” Thomas Mason, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told sister publication Exchange Monitor

here on the sidelines of the Monitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit. “We are also working to try and pull that forward and we’re also keeping an eye on the budget process, which is trying to pull us in the other direction.”

The lab expects to produce a first production unit pit, essentially a test article to be dissected to prove the lab’s future manufacturing processes work, in 2024, Mason said during a panel discussion here.

Los Alamos, like most of the rest of the federal government, has been funded at 2023 levels since Oct. 1 under a series of stopgap budgets that effectively deferred a raise the pit program would get under permanent fiscal year 2024 spending bills yet to be reconciled in Congress.

In 2023, the Department of Energy signed off on a construction schedule that said the equipment needed to make at least 30 pits a year at Los Alamos would not be installed until 2030 or so. Soon after, Mason said it might still be possible to hit the milestone sooner, closer to the 2026 target the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) officially set in 2020.

Los Alamos will split pit casting duties with a larger factory planned at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C. The Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, which NNSA had hoped would come online by 2030 or so, may not be ready until the middle of the last decade, the agency has said.

The first pits to be cast at Los Alamos, and Savannah River, will be for W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile warheads to tip the planned fleet of Sentinel missiles, the replacement for the current Minuteman III fleet.

With pit delays looming, Congress has directed the Air Force to study whether one Sentinel wing should be sunk into their silos with W78 warheads from the Minuteman fleet. The military’s plan had been to put W87-0 warheads on the first Sentinel missiles and W87-1 warheads on later Sentinels.

W87-0 would be an existing Minuteman III warhead adapted for use on Sentinel. W87-1 would be a freshly manufactured copy of the W78, Minuteman III’s other warhead, with a fresh pit cast at Los Alamos.

This story first appeared in Defense Daily affiliate publication Weapons Complex Morning Briefing.