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Crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Part 6—The Savannah River Solution

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
October 21, 2022

This is the sixth and final column in a series regarding the unfolding, unprecedented crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex (NWC) (the first column on how U.S. budget politics since 1969 have damaged the NWC is here; the second on how nuclear weapons ended exponentially deadly warfare among the great powers is here; the third column on issues with manufacturing plutonium “pits” is here; the fourth on the troubles at the PANTEX plant in Texas is here; and the fifth on the uncertain future of the Y-12 Plant in Tennessee is here). This column finishes the series by proposing a solution to what ails the NWC; specifically, I propose to consolidate most of the NWC functions at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Situated near the border with Georgia about 130 miles east of Charleston, Savannah River is among the largest sites within the NWC (see the 10-mile by 10-mile satellite image accompanying this column). Thus occupying about 100 square miles, the site mostly consists of shuttered plutonium manufacturing facilities built to duplicate the capacity of the now completely dismantled Hanford River Site in Washington State. As noted in my prior column about Plutonium pits, Savannah River currently is slated to build pits for the next generation of U.S. nuclear weapons. Savannah River most recently was the only NWC site that produced Tritium for “boosting” nuclear detonations.

The United Sates and Russia are the only two nuclear weapons states that have their complexes located in multiple facilities across thousands of miles. Even those countries with high degrees of paranoia about their status—for example, Israel, North Korea—have clustered their weapons manufacturing complexes mostly in a single location. The resulting efficiencies and reduced security burdens clearly exceed the risk of an attack that could destroy the entire complex at once.

This series has discussed how deferred maintenance and other mismanagement has resulted in a crisis of capacity at Los Alamos, PANTEX and Y-12. Now is the opportune moment to pursue consolidation of most of the NWC at a single site. Savannah River has several major advantages relative to the alternatives:

  • Savannah River is located in an area with low to moderate risk of natural disasters with hurricanes being the only consistent threat. Los Alamos faces annual risks from extreme drought and forest fires; PANTEX and Y-12 are at risk of severe damage from floods.
  • Sandia National Labs and the Kansas City Plant are located in cities with restrictions on the expansion of their activities near those urban centers and they generally do not handle nuclear materials; Savannah River is in a rural location and has plenty of undeveloped land within its boundaries to build extensive new NWC facilities that comply with current environmental and worker safety regulations.
  • Savannah River can draw a highly educated workforce from the surrounding area including graduates of many major universities in the region.
  • While there is some organized opposition to NWC operations at Savannah River, the political climate in South Carolina is much more conducive to relocating the capacities of Los Alamos, PANTEX and Y-12 than at any other current NWC site.
  • Opening a completely new NWC site for consolidation of operations most likely would face extreme opposition, as occurred so far with efforts to locate a nuclear waste repository for spent civilian nuclear fuel.

The last time the NWC looked into a major consolidation was during the George W. Bush Administration. That review recommended not pursuing consolidation out of a concern for cost. Underlying that concern were the lingering consequences of other large-scale federal government initiatives that experienced significant cost overruns and unsatisfactory results. Also underlying the recommendation against consolidating the NWC was the unpredictable requirements of building new facilities that would not be “grandfathered” regarding compliance with environmental and worker safety regulations. The fundamental importance of nuclear weapons makes it imperative that the federal government face these concerns head on and pursue consolidation of the NWC. I simply do not see a credible way forward with the status quo.

This revised NWC could continue to include weapons design bureaus at Los Alamos and possibly at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Sandia National Lab and the Kansas City Plant could continue to build non-nuclear components. But all other operations at Los Alamos would be transferred to Savannah River as would all operations at PANTEX and Y-12. As soon as possible, PANTEX and Y-12 would be shuttered, dismantled and then remediated along with the Plutonium facility at Los Alamos. Almost from soup to nuts, Savannah River would be where the United States builds nuclear weapons.

I conclude this series as I began it with a warning. The current condition of the NWC means that the United States is unable to build its proposed next generation of nuclear weapons along a practical timeline. Unless something transformational is attempted, the United States will denuclearize because of allowing the NWC to fall apart since the early 1990s. This does not seem like an appropriate time in world history for that to be allowed to happen.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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