Los Alamos National Laboratory would receive about $1 billion for plutonium operations at the heart of its effort to produce 30 nuclear bomb cores by 2026, according to a partial budget the White House released Friday.
The amount would be more than a 20 percent jump from the $837 million being spent this year on the lab’s plutonium work, a clear signal that President Joe Biden will echo his predecessors’ calls to modernize the nuclear stockpile to deter China, Russia, Iran and other adversaries that have growing first-strike abilities.
The lab’s $837 million plutonium budget this year was 2.7 times larger than the prior year’s allocation of $308 million.
The lab’s plutonium funding was part of the draft budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency in charge of the country’s nuclear weapons program.
The budget also requests $603 million — a 37 percent increase — to move the Savannah River Site in South Carolina toward producing 50 pits a year.
A critic of the lab’s nuclear spending said the budget contains no surprises.
“That’s kind of what we expected,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group. “They’re not at the peak yet at Los Alamos, and they’re just getting into it at Savannah River.”
The National Nuclear Security Administration would receive nearly identical funding as it did this year, more evidence that Biden doesn’t plan, at least for now, to ratchet down nuclear spending.
The White House is requesting about $19.7 billion for the agency, a slight increase of $11 million from this year’s budget.
“The funding enables NNSA to execute its long-standing nuclear modernization efforts begun under the Obama-Biden administration, advances global nonproliferation efforts ... and supports United States leadership in science and technology,” Charles Verdon, the agency’s acting administrator, said in a statement.
Nuclear nonproliferation programs would be funded at about the same level of $2.26 billion.
The Obama administration amped up nuclear modernization, partly as a bargaining chip to get the then-GOP-controlled Congress to ratify the START pact. The treaty limits Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals and was recently renewed by Biden.
The Obama administration set a goal of having the country produce 50 to 80 pits by 2030. The Trump administration went further, requiring Los Alamos lab and Savannah River to crank out a combined 80 pits yearly by 2030.
But making 80 pits a year within the next decade has been called into question.
Lisa Hruby, Biden’s pick to lead the nuclear agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the Savannah River plant is unlikely to produce 50 pits yearly until sometime between 2030 and 2035.
Mello said the 2030 target was always in doubt, but it became “the mantra.”
“Most parties were skeptical, but they stuck with the story,” Mello said. “Now, Jill Hruby has said the more realistic deadline.”
Another lab critic said if Savannah River is delayed in reaching its pit-making goal, Los Alamos lab could be pressured to produce more than 30 pits a year.
“All of this may boomerang on Los Alamos lab, which has been incapable of making a pit for the nuclear weapons stockpile since 2011,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Coghlan was referring to a contract in which the lab made 11 pits in one year for Navy missiles a decade ago. That was the lab’s highest pit production, which soon ceased.
The budget states that the needed equipment would be installed to produce the first pit by 2023. Three years later, production would escalate to 30 pits yearly.