WASHINGTON The government plans to resume making plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads and is beginning design work on a manufacturing plant, the Energy Department said Friday.
The department halted the production of plutonium "pits," or triggers, for warheads in 1989. The pit is a critical component of a nuclear weapon.
"We need to have the capacity to manufacture certified pits to maintain the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent into the future," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a statement.
The manufacturing plant is expected to cost $2.2 billion to $4.4 billion, depending on the production capacity, said a statement from DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration.
The plan would start the new plant's production by 2020. While the plant will be at an existing Energy Department weapons facility, the announcement said no decision has been made on a site. The site-selection process begins in September.
Currently the department relies on refurbishing triggers from disassembled warheads when they are needed. That limited production capability at the Pantex facility in Texas cannot meet long-term needs, officials said.
The administration's recent nuclear posture review urged construction of a pit-production plant, and some members of both the House and Senate have expressed worry that the lack of such a facility could jeopardize future readiness of the country's nuclear weapons stockpile.
The plutonium pit, about the size of a softball, is the trigger that allows modern nuclear weapons to operate properly. They were last produced at the DOE's Rocky Flats facility in Colorado. That facility has been closed and now is in the midst of being cleaned of radioactive waste.
The posture review said the ability to produce pits "is important to ensure the future viability of the nation's nuclear stockpile." Members of Congress, the Defense Department and outside advisory groups for some time have urged resumption of pit production.
On the Net: National Nuclear Security Administration: http://www.nnsa.doe.gov/
© 2002 The Associated Press