Why ‘Plutonium Pits’ Are Key to Updating Our Aging Nuclear Arsenal

The Biden administration has begun a series of reviews of the U.S. national security posture, including its nuclear posture. This will soon lead to a more formal nuclear posture review (NPR) The administration would be wise to maintain the bipartisan consensus to fully modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent, including its production infrastructure, as part of that review. Specifically, it should move forward with plans to reconstitute a plutonium pit production capability, and to do so at two sites.

Plutonium pits are the basic ingredient in most of the world’s nuclear weapons.  A pit is a “spherical shell[s] of plutonium that act as the triggers for a thermonuclear explosion.” The U.S. invented them in the Manhattan Project. But, U.S. officials made the decision to end domestic production more than 30 years ago. Strong allies like the U.K and France can make them. Likewise, Russia, the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and Pakistan can all produce plutonium pits.  Only the U.S. presently can’t make them for its deployed weapons. 

Meanwhile, U.S. nuclear weapons are almost all beyond their design life. To address this problem the Energy Department has been conducting lifetime extension programs, but these refurbishments aren’t a long-term solution.

Despite the efforts of nuclear idealists who advocate abandoning the U.S. plutonium production capability, and other U.S. efforts to invest in refurbished and improved elements to our nuclear deterrent, there was significant consensus between the Obama and Trump administrations on the need to make significant improvements. This came as a great disappointment to the coterie of disarmament ideologues who had hoped Obama would make drastic cuts to or otherwise further weaken the U.S. nuclear deterrent. After all, Obama did receive the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office for his pledge to seek a world without nuclear weapons.

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