On March 26, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to have a hearing to receive words of wisdom from a Congressionally-mandated “Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise,” which is government-speak for trying to fix the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Read More
March 24th, 2014
March 5th, 2014
Yesterday the Obama administration released the broad brushstrokes of its Fiscal Year 2015 budget request. In the process, they sent a clear signal that the administration is focusing on maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile while devoting fewer resources to preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear materials. The choice is particularly noteworthy in light of the administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which explicitly placed “preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism” as the first objective of U.S. nuclear policy.
In discussing the budget request, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz expressed his own personal unhappiness with the cuts to nonproliferation programs, noted he was “disappointed” in how the budget came out. But he defended the administration’s decision to increase funds for weapons activities while cutting other programs as a painful but necessary step.
The contrast in funding is indeed stark. The total FY15 request for the National Nuclear Security Administration is $11.7 billion The Weapons Activities account, under which work on the U.S. nuclear stockpile is funded, consumes $8.3 billion of that, a 6.9% increase over the amount appropriated in the current fiscal year. Nonproliferation activities take up only $1.6 billion, a 20% cut from current funding levels.
In comparison, in FY2010—the first year the Obama administration submitted its own budget—they requested $6.3 billion for weapons activities and $2.1 billion for nonproliferation programs. In FY2011, the administration projected that in FY2015 it would request $7.9 billion for weapons activities and $2.9 billion for nonproliferation. They exceeded their expectations on the weapons side, but cut back on nonproliferation funding by almost half.
The End of MOX?
The biggest news of the day was the decision to put the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant on “cold standby,” a step that is close to, but not quite, the end of this troubled—and troubling—project. Ending it would be a good thing. The program is designed to dispose of excess plutonium from nuclear weapons programs by using it as fuel in commercial nuclear reactors. However, it has long been hampered by major delays and significant cost overruns. Of more concern, UCS has long noted that, by using weapons-grade material in commercial facilities where security is lower, the MOX program would create more risks than it addresses.
While this fact was not enough to kill the program, it appears that the budget problems have almost done it in. The cost to construct the MOX fuel fabrication facility recently increased to $7.7 billion, a dramatic increase over the previous estimate of $4.8 billion, which itself was more than quadruple the initial estimate of $1 billion.
The life-cycle costs for the program, however, are even more troubling than the construction costs. DOE Secretary Moniz stated yesterday that the full cost of the program was in excess of $30 billion, significantly more than the NNSA’s draft April 2013 life-cycle cost estimate of $24.2 billion, which the Government Accountability Office criticized as “not credible.”
MOX still in the Mix
Despite that massive total cost, DOE officials were anxious to emphasize that the MOX program was not entirely dead. The administration is still examining approaches that will allow it to fulfill the agreement with Russia under which each country pledged to dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium from nuclear weapons. To that end, a new, independent, external review will launched. Secretary Moniz specifically noted that MOX was still among the options under consideration, although NNSA officials noted that it would require finding major cost savings in the program to make that possible.
Those statements, however, are somewhat at odds with how the Office of Management and Budget describes the situation. Their DOE budget document states: “The Department of Energy is developing alternative approaches to plutonium disposition and will engage with stakeholders to determine a viable alternative. As a result, the MOX project will be placed in cold standby while an alternative approached is determined.” While that statement is not definitive, the strong implication is that the MOX program is dead and an alternative will be pursued.
Whether or not MOX remains a real option, officials made clear yesterday that the new consideration of alternatives will take another 12-18 months. That study is on top of an assessment conducted over the last year following the release of the FY2014 budget request, in which the administration announced it was putting a hold on construction of the MOX facility while it considered alternative approaches to plutonium disposal.
At yesterday’s budget briefing, UCS requested that the completed study be released to the public, to comply with the engagement with stakeholders that is a part of the follow-on assessment. NNSA officials responded that the study could be released at the discretion of the Secretary of Energy, for whom it was conducted. We will be making a formal request to the Secretary to release the study.
The final note on the MOX program goes back to the disparity between weapons activities and nonproliferation programs. Officials noted that one of the reasons for the sharp decline in nonproliferation funding was the cut in the MOX program. In FY14, the budget included over $500 million for disposing of fissile material, of which $344 million went to construction of the MOX facility. The FY15 budget document requests $311 million for disposing of fissile material, and officials indicated $221 million of that was for the MOX facility.
While it is true that a portion of the cuts to nonproliferation programs is due to MOX funding reductions, it is only a portion. The once high-profile Global Threat Reduction Initiative, for example, faces a 25% budget cut, from $442 million to $333 million. Congress should restore as much of that funding as possible.
Top photo credit: TaxCredits.net
February 19th, 2014
In January of 2013, the Air Force announced that it was conducting a “ground-based strategic deterrent analysis of alternatives,” which is military-speak for looking at options to replace the current silo-based, long-range Minuteman III missiles, which are armed with one to three nuclear warheads and deployed across the central plains of the United States.
The Air Force analysis has been subject to some ridicule, in particular because among the options considered are underground, rail-mobile approaches that were considering during the peak of the nuclear build-up in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan and rejected even then as too expensive.
As it turns out, even a direct replacement for the silo-based Minuteman would cost around $100 billion; the mobile approaches would be considerably more. That price is giving pause to even advocates for renewing the strategic triad of nuclear-armed submarines, missiles, and bombers.
Last week, I attended a conference of many self-proclaimed “die-hard Cold Warriors.” Speakers included Gen. Larry Welch, former head of Strategic Air Command (the predecessor of today’s Strategic Command), Johnny Foster, former head of Livermore national laboratory, and Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, who is responsible for the Air Force’s nuclear deterrence operations.
Given the speakers, what I discovered at the conference is somewhat surprising: the idea of replacing the Minuteman with a new missile is already widely dismissed as too expensive.
October 29th, 2013
If you look at what officials say about the life extension program for the B61 nuclear bomb, they mention again and again how old the warhead is. Here is Don Cook, NNSA’s deputy administrator of defense programs, before the House energy and water appropriations subcommittee on February 14, 2013:
We have engaged in a thorough analysis of what’s required to extend the life of the oldest weapon we have in the deterrent, and that is the B61. There are elements of that weapon that are 40 years old; a lot that are 30 years old. There are fewer that are 20 years old. Read More
September 26th, 2013
At the request of Congress, in 2012 the independent science advisory group JASON reviewed the planned life extension program (LEP) for the B61 nuclear bomb—the so-called 3B option. This option includes modest changes to the nuclear explosive package (NEP).
April 12th, 2013
On Wednesday, the Obama administration released its FY2014 federal budget request, more than two months after the normal deadline. The reasons for the delay – uncertainty due to the Budget Control Act, the sequester, and the complications around them – are well known, but even in that light some of the information released was thin in the extreme. Read More
November 5th, 2012
As has been widely reported, the DOD estimates that the B61 Life Extension Program will cost $10 billion, more than twice the estimate the NNSA had a little over a year ago. What has not been noted is that the DOD expects that the first updated warhead, what is called the “first production unit,” will not appear until at least 2022, three years AFTER the NNSA has stated it absolutely must be deployed.
That fact emerges from DOD’s cost estimate, which we obtained a copy of and are releasing now.
Paying the Bill
The implications of the cost increase are clear. If the DOD wants to keep its ambitious goals for the B61 update, it will have to pay the bigger bill. As we’ve noted before, for the first time in history, the Pentagon has for two years been providing funds directly to the NNSA.
It is not clear they will want to pony up a lot more money. For one, in the FY13 budget, NNSA already slowed down the on-going life extension program for the W76 so they could speed up the B61. And that was when the cost estimates for the B61 were merely rising, not exploding. Second, there a lot of nuclear weapons programs that have rising costs, including the W76 life extension program, the Uranium Processing Facility, and all the delivery systems DOD handles directly. Together, it may become more than the DOD wants to pay for, particularly when the role of nuclear weapons in security continues to decline. Sequestration, if it happens, would leave even fewer funds available.
Meeting the Schedule
NNSA testified earlier this year that the first B61 must be produced by 2019 to “meet the military requirements of the Nation.” (Note that date is also a delay, as last year NNSA said they HAD to have the first units in 2017.)
I have it on good authority that the NNSA claims that if the deadline is missed, then by 2021 or 2022, the reliability of the warheads will begin to decline and the NNSA will in relatively short order not be able to certify them.
Nominally, one might think this is most worrying for the 180 or so B61 bombs in Europe. Fortunately, even if those weapons are decertified, it won’t decrease European security. As former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright has stated, those warheads have no military role in U.S. or allied security. They are there as political reassurance for some NATO countries, though not—one should note—for the countries that actually host the warheads. Most of those governments would be happy for the warheads to go home.
So, really, this is a political problem. It’s embarrassing that the United States would have to declare that the useless warheads in Europe actually might not work as designed. There may be a need to find other political reassurances, but there is no risk to security.
The presence of the weapons in Europe, however, does create a security risk; they are easily the most vulnerable of any in the U.S. stockpile. That is a problem worth losing sleep over. The B61 life extension program is intended to increase the safety and security of the warheads.
Of course, the simple answer is the best: bring them back to the United States. The majority of B61s are stored at the Underground Munitions Storage Complex at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. I’m told this is the one facility in the country where, in the DOD force-on-force protection exercises, the attackers always fail. Even better, withdraw these B61 from service entirely and put them at Pantex. Problem solved.
The Modest Option
If it is determined that United States needs to maintain these warheads (not a foregone conclusion), the sensible alternative to save money and speed up the process is to simplify the B61 life extension program. The current goal is to create one new mod, the B61-12, that is based on the B61-4 with surety improvements and other updates, and get rid of mods -3, -4, -7 and -10.
Instead, make only modest component swaps that are needed to extend the life of the four mods, add new surety features only if the technology is in hand and the cost small. That could get you a life extension program that would be on-time and for less than $10 billion.
That choice is almost entirely in the hands of the DOD. It is the one that asked to reduce the number of mods so it can simplify the handling procedures and, in theory, reduce costs in the long run. Given the huge costs of the current life extension proposal, that seems like a reasonable goal only if the simpler handling procedures significantly reduce costs, something that DOD should know.
But let’s return to the DOD’s cost estimate report. It has many details worth noting.
The DOD’s Assessment
The 2022 date appears in the analysis by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), which is conducting a review of every NNSA program for which DOD is providing funding. That includes the B61 LEP, the W76 LEP (in process), the W78 LEP (in development), the Uranium Processing Facility, increasing pit production capacity at PF-4, and—at least up until it was deferred—the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility.
The CAPE document, labeled “For Official Use Only” describes, point by point, why the Pentagon’s cost estimate is significantly higher and production schedule slower than the NNSA’s estimate. The document provides a side-by-side comparison of the DOE’s estimate and CAPE’s, showing how the two arrive at different numbers and dates.
NNSA has a major timing problem. The new components being developed for the B61 are not ready now and likely will not be ready in time for production to begin on the schedule NNSA currently says is required.
Here’s why. The DOD requires technical assessments of the new components in any acquisition program, and NNSA uses them as well. It is called a “Technology Readiness Level” designation, or TRL, with levels from 1-9. Level 1 indicates the component is in basic research and level 9 is for a system proven through operation in the field. To be in any weapons program, developers like to have components at level 7, a working prototype, but the minimum is supposed to be level 6, which is basically some kind of prototype, somewhere.
As the CAPE document points out, 15 of the 29 major components for the B61 life extension are at level 5 or less. One, the weapon control unit, is at level 2, meaning the concept is formulated on paper.
NNSA, of course, hopes that it can development the new warhead and these technologies concurrently. CAPE doesn’t think that will work.
To show why, CAPE compares the scope of W76 LEP, which is in production, and the B61, still in development. The results are not pretty for NNSA.
Here a just a few of the tidbits DOD points out:
- The W76 LEP has 18 major components; as noted above, the B61 has 29.
- The W76 warhead has to integrate with just one platform, the Trident missile. The B61 has five platforms, including B52 and B2 strategic bombers and F15, F16, and Tornado fighter aircraft. A sixth, the F35 Joint Strike Fighter still in development, is coming but was apparently left out by CAPE, unless something else is happening.
- Quote: “Sandia claims [B61] effort is 3 to 4 times the effort of the W76 LEP”
- Despite Sandia’s estimate, the NNSA plans a shorter development schedule for the B61 with more concurrency.
- On the W76, teams worked seven days a week for four years on critical components, yet NNSA is planning five-day work weeks for the B61.
- NNSA is simultaneously doing a major alteration to the W88, installing a new arming, firing and fusing mechanism. (Why this cannot wait until the planned W88 LEP, next in line after the W78, is not clear.)
Based on this comparison, the CAPE concludes “Top-Level Comparison to W76 LEP actual schedule indicates B-61 LEP execution assumptions are very aggressive to meet 2019.”
Very aggressive indeed.
Sometime late next month, the Pentagon is expected to get the NNSA’s response to CAPE’s assessment. It’s hard to see how NNSA can defend its current B61 plans and assumptions.
September 25th, 2012
The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) is not quite dead, but it is headed that way. The Union of Concerned Scientists already made its case for that outcome. We supported the administration’s proposed five year delay for the new nuclear weapons-related plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As we said, “there is no clear need for the CMRR-NF as currently proposed.” It simply isn’t needed.
Recent developments have come in a “two steps forward, one step back” slide toward delaying the facility. As we’ll see below, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) argues such delay means the eventual demise of the facility, but the administration continues to argue to the contrary.
Most recently, two steps toward delay came with the Senate’s passage, over the weekend, of the Continuing Resolution that will fund the federal government when the 2013 fiscal year starts on October 1. The good news is that there is no money in the CR specifically for the CMRR.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying on the part of CMRR supporters. Perhaps most ominously, in June Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) organized a bipartisan letter that was signed by Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE), the chair of the strategic forces subcommittee of the Senate armed services committee, and four other Senators. The letter called on the administration to provide full funding for the CMRR.
That letter followed an earlier, more partisan letter organized by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), in which she was joined by 11 other freshman Republican senators threatening to not support any arms control treaties unless CMRR was fully funded.
In the end, these letters did not persuade Congressional appropriators, who wrote the CR. This isn’t surprising, as both the House and Senate appropriations committees supported the administration’s position by denying funding for CMRR in their FY2013 bills.
No Language Prohibiting CMRR
The bad news is that does NOT mean that the CMRR could not be funded. There is no provision in the CR or elsewhere that would prohibit using FY12 or FY13 money for the CMRR, if the administration and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) chose to do so. The CR was perhaps the last best opportunity for supporters to get funding for the CMRR, but it does not mean they are giving up.
Specifically (like every department and agency) the NNSA must submit a spending plan 30 days after the CR takes effect that says what it plans to do with the money it are allocated.
Fortunately, there are lots of indications that the NNSA has no interest in allocating any money for the CMRR.
Quite the opposite. The NNSA is disbanding the CMRR design team and is trying to spend the money that the FY12 budget devoted to the project on its alternative plutonium strategy. That strategy is the plan for plutonium work NNSA is proposing as a result of the five-year delay in the CMRR.
Objections to Reprograming
That is where the “one step back” comes in. Sen. Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is not happy with NNSA’s plan. On September 19, he sent a letter to the Department of Energy in which he “defers action on this [NNSA] request” to reprogram the money from the CMRR to the alternative plutonium strategy.
This creates a problem for NNSA. Whenever any government agency wants to adjust its plans and spend money somehow other than Congress first approved it for, they must get the approval of all four relevant congressional committees that handle authorization and appropriation. In this case, that is the House and Senate armed services and energy and water development committees.
The appropriations committees presumably have or will sign off happily on repurposing the FY2012 money toward the alternative plutonium strategy.
The House Armed Services Committee, however, previously took an adamant course in opposition. In their bill, they went so far as to deny ANY money for an alternative plutonium strategy unless the CMRR was fully funded. They undoubtedly would be the last player to agree to the switch.
That makes Sen. Levin and the SASC the key player. If they can be persuaded, the HASC might have a harder time standing alone.
Administration’s United Front
To make the case, I’m told that the Pentagon leadership, the NNSA, and the head of Los Alamos, Charlie McMillan, have banded together to push for the CMRR delay and the alternative plan.
Even Gen. Robert Kehler, head of U.S. Strategic Command, who has testified earlier in the year that he was satisfied with the FY13 plan but worried about the longer-term plan, seems to be growing more confident. In August, he said “I do think that we are beginning to close on a way ahead here that will have us have sufficient interim capability while we look to get the long term solution back on track. … It’s still under discussion. I think we’ve had … very good discussions about the way forward.”
Some details about the alternative plutonium plan have emerged, with initial reporting by John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal and further explanations from Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group. Sometimes called “Plan B,” the proposal includes significant upgrades to the recently-completed Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB – photo above). That upgrade would further expand the amount of plutonium that could be worked on at the lab. A tunnel would also be added between the lab and Plutonium Facility 4 (PF-4), where pits are made. The existing vault within PF-4 would be improved. Pit needs would be met by a combination of the current production capacity at PF-4 and reuse of existing pits. All the pieces seem to be falling into place to make the weapons labs and—more importantly—the DOD happy.
But Sen. Levin’s letter, coming from someone who normally would agree with the administration, indicates concerns remain in Congress.
His letter makes a case against the CMRR delay. It states that on September 13, NNSA submitted the request to reprogram the $120 million that was appropriated for CMRR in FY12 toward the alternative plutonium strategy. It notes the estimate prepared by LANL that the alternative plutonium strategy will cost between $800 million and $1.13 billion.
Then his letter assumes that a five-year delay in CMRR will increase costs by 25% and combines that with the alternative strategy costs to get a total estimate of $5.6-$7.2 billion for the CMRR project. This increase, the letter states, could be too much to bear, noting “Pragmatically, the Committee has concluded that deferral of at least ‘five years’ is essentially a cancelation.”
His letter concludes by stating that “The Committee is willing to provide funding for the alternative plutonium strategy as long as a portion of the $120 million is utilized to reconstitute the CMRR-NF facility in support of the New START Treaty. The Committee requests a meeting with the NNSA and Executive Branch stakeholders to reverse this deferral so that the short and long term plutonium needs of this nation can be met.”
The Final Outcome
The supporters of CMRR are in a distinct minority. It is the House and Senate authorizing committees alone that support building the facility. The administration, including the Pentagon, the NNSA, the weapons labs, and the Congressional appropriations committees all support the delay.
If I were a betting man, I’d side with the appropriators and the Pentagon, as that is a fairly powerful combination that usually gets its way. But the final word is not yet spoken, and will undoubtedly await Congressional approval of the alternative plutonium plan.
September 18th, 2012
Bob Peurifoy, former Vice President of Sandia national lab, was telling me about the “three eras” of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. I thought I would explore the concept. As Bob knows, we are still stuck in the second era, but it isn’t for lack of trying.
The first era was the Cold War, when new weapons entered the stockpile regularly, massive numbers of nuclear weapons were produced and full-scale nuclear testing was frequent.
The second era was the post-Cold War period when production and design of new weapons, as well as full-scale testing, all stopped. The focus of the nuclear weapons complex shifted from developing and building new weapons to maintaining the existing stockpile.
Sustaining the Nuclear Stockpile
Thanks to significant efforts and investments, this effort has succeeded, far beyond many expectations. As lab officials and outside experts have stated repeatedly, we know far more now about how nuclear weapons work than we ever did during the age of nuclear testing.
In fact, just three years ago, a Livermore scientist won a prestigious award for solving a half-century old question about the “energy balance” between the primary and the secondary, allowing computer simulations to much more accurately model nuclear weapons, as verified by modeling previous explosive tests.
Trying To Do More
However, the work to maintain the stockpile has not kept everyone happy. That unhappiness has led to a push to enter the third age of the nuclear stockpile, where the United States seeks to develop and deploy new weapons without full-scale nuclear testing.
At times, the military has joined with the weapons labs in pushing for new weapons, in particular for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (see our cool/scary animation). First proposed in 2003, the RNEP sought to improve on the bunker-busting capabilities of the B61-11, the existing earth-penetrating nuclear gravity bomb in the U.S. stockpile. The RNEP project was still in the design phase when it was killed by Congress. That outcome, it is worth noting, resulted in large part from the opposition of the Republican majority in the House, where Rep. David Hobson (R-OH), chair of the energy and water appropriations committee, did not see the sense of investing in new weapons given the other challenges faced in the stockpile and complex.
Thus failed the first effort to push the U.S. stockpile into a third era.
New warhead proponents did not give up. The RNEP campaign was followed by the Reliable Replacement Warhead, an effort promoted largely by the weapons labs. Supporters of the RRW sought to portray it as NOT a new warhead, touting the fact that it would have no new capabilities and was based on a primary design that was developed but never fielded.
More broadly, the RRW effort became the linchpin for the effort to rebuild much of the weapons complex. NNSA documents called RRW the “driver” for complex transformation.
But the RRW fared no better in Congress than did the RNEP. Rep. Pete Visclosky (R-IN), who replaced Rep. Hobson when Democrats took over the House, stated that the RRW program “puts the cart before the horse,” and called on the DOE to focus on “reconfiguring the old Cold War complex and dismantling obsolete warheads.”
And Congress eliminated funding for the RRW, thus ending the second attempt to enter the third era.
A More Modest Approach?
With two strikes against it, the push has shifted from proposing new warheads to making significant changes to existing warheads. The new approach seeks to use Life Extension Programs—the current standard practice for maintaining the nuclear stockpile—as a vehicle to make major changes to warheads.
Previously, LEPs have largely (though not entirely) focused on keeping the weapons as they are. The general approach, particularly for the nuclear explosive package, was to replace parts with identical or equivalent components, and to generally avoid major changes. (The nuclear explosive package contains the plutonium-based primary and uranium-based secondary.)
That is not the path the NNSA is pursuing now.
The test case for this new approach is the B61 gravity bomb. DOE officials have described the redo for this warhead as the first “full scope LEP.” The LEP was aggressive and had multiple objectives, including:
- Integrate new Air Force delivery capability
- Consolidate (4) B61 modifications into a single bomb variant
- Improve weapon safety, use control and reliability
- Reduce special nuclear material
- Reduce maintenance and weapon exposure
- Improve physics margin
- Eliminate safety soft spots(!)
The Government Accountability Office, in its assessment of the program, noted “Unlike prior life extension programs, the ongoing B61 study was broadly scoped to accomplish a variety of goals—such as considering previously untried design options and concepts—in addition to replacing the bomb’s aging components.”
Problems along the Way
The path for the B61 has not gone as smoothly as the NNSA hoped.
First, the “untried design options and concepts” GAO mentions have, at least in one important area, been set aside.
Specifically, the NNSA was looking at installing multipoint safety and optical initiators, two advanced safety technologies that would have required modifying the warhead’s nuclear explosive package.
Multipoint safety seeks to lessen the chance of an accidental nuclear explosion if the conventional explosive accidentally ignites at more than one point nearly simultaneously. The current one-point safety requirement mandates that the risk of a nuclear detonation be no greater than one in a million if the conventional explosive accidentally ignites at one point, which official documents acknowledge is an “extraordinarily high reliability requirement.” The GAO notes that warheads in the current stockpile do not have multipoint safety, and even the NNSA does not consider the technology mature.
(I note that Bob Peurifoy states with absolute confidence that the stockpile actually already de facto HAS multipoint safety, and he would certainly know better than the GAO, but let’s set that aside. NNSA is still was declaring they planned to install it.)
Optical initiators use lasers transmitted via fiber optic cables to ignite the conventional explosives that compress the plutonium in the primary. (A patent that explains the process generically is here.) This technology has also never been fielded and is not mature, but in both cases the NNSA weapons labs believed they could make it work in time for the B-61 LEP.
Not Ready for Prime Time
However, the Nuclear Weapons Council, a joint DOD-DOE decision-making body, decided in December 2011 that the LEP should not include those technologies. Other safety and security features that do not require modifying the nuclear explosive package will be incorporated. Some components of the NEP will be “upgraded” much like is happening in the W76 LEP, where plastic parts and rubber cushions will be swapped out, but there will not be modifications.
Second, the cost for the LEP has skyrocketed. As recently as last year, in the FY12 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, the NNSA estimated the LEP would cost $4 billion. However, a new estimate done by the Pentagon’s budget bureau states the cost will be $10.1 billion. (More on that in a future blog post soon.)
The cost increase caused Rep. Visclosky to bash the entire NNSA cost-estimating process: “The poster child of this inability to accurately estimate cost is the Life Extension Program for the B-61 bomb, the price tag of which has gone from $4 [billion] to $10 billion.”
This dramatic cost increase may lead to an even more modest LEP than currently planned for. In any event, as described above, the LEP will not be the “full-scope” program that the NNSA originally envisioned. Untested, unproven technologies, at least those inside the NEP, will remain on the shelf, at least for now.
Fourth Time’s the Charm?
That does not mean the weapons labs have given up, by any means. As we’ve described before, they still hope to combine the W78 and W88 warheads into a “common warhead” based on the W87. That warhead design could include a modified nuclear explosive package.
But, to date, the labs have failed to propel the United States into the third era of nuclear weapons, where new types of nuclear weapons can enter the stockpile without full-scale testing. A combination of Congressional resistance, technical challenges and good old common sense has held them back.
August 20th, 2012
In 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu signed an unprecedented agreement under which the DOD agreed to transfer large sums of money to DOE over the following five years to ensure the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) could complete several major projects that the Pentagon supported, but that NNSA could not otherwise afford. The document has not been previously released.
The agreement has had the unintended consequence of highlighting NNSA’s troubled cost-estimating process. The agreement also muddles a long-standing divide between civilians and the military on nuclear weapons. In the early days, it was decided that civilians should control both the decision to use nuclear weapons and their production. The military built the delivery systems and handled implementation (that is, targeting and delivery). That division is reflected both in the Congressional appropriations process and in the government. The House and Senate Energy and Water Development appropriations committees make final decisions on funding for nuclear weapons development and production, the work done by the DOE/NNSA. Pentagon funding is handled separately in the Defense appropriations committees. This is partly related to the history of the Army Corps of Engineers, which ran the Manhattan Project. Because it does mostly civilian work on water projects, the Corps was and is funded by the Energy and Water appropriations bill.
Today, the Nuclear Weapons Council—a joint DOD-DOE decision-making body—makes the major choices about requirements for nuclear weapons and their maintenance, but the NNSA (and it predecessors) have relatively free rein in deciding how to meet those requirements.
The 2010 agreement is shifting that dynamic. Now, with the DOD providing money directly to NNSA, the Pentagon has become much more interested in how that money is being spent and on what. As a result, the number crunchers at the Pentagon are taking a very hard look at the NNSA’s plans, and it seems they do not much like what they see.
In fact, the problems that have emerged, combined with other dynamics, may lead to major change at NNSA. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) has already expressed its displeasure with NNSA on several fronts and proposed some adjustments. That, plus the troubles outlined below, may provide the leverage to tip the balance toward transformation.
What’s a Few Billion between Friends?
One sign that there are serious problems at NNSA is the FY13 budget submission. The annual budget submission sent to Congress includes out-year projections for five years. It is only a planning estimate, nothing final, but it gives a sense of upcoming costs. The FY13 budget for NNSA, however, includes no such projections for its weapons activities, just blank columns. (You can see a key page here.) One explanation is that someone somewhere decided that the NNSA’s estimates were too much like guesstimates and would not agree to publish them. Given that the Pentagon is taking a hard look at these numbers, it seems reasonable to assume DOD held them up.
NNSA officials have testified that those projections are still forthcoming, perhaps as soon as next month.
But the early returns are not favorable.
Specifically, the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation now estimates that the Life Extension Program for the B61 warhead will cost $10 billion dollars, up from $3.9 billion just over a year ago. The NNSA itself now estimates that the cost of the B61 will be $8 billion—and this is for a relatively modest project that has been significantly scaled back from the original vision of a “full-scale LEP” that would make changes in the nuclear explosive package. (Here is information on the original plan; since then NNSA abandoned plans to install new safety technologies that would have required modifying the warhead’s primary, among other cost-saving steps.)
(Separately, I’ve also heard rumors of some loud and not particularly friendly meetings between DOD and NNSA officials, with the former expressing their dismay toward the latter. One quote recounted to me: “You made those numbers up. You TOLD me you made those numbers up . . . and now you are citing them?”)
A cost jump from $3.9 billion to $10 billion should raise more than an eyebrow, but it falls well within historical patterns for NNSA projects. The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication plant in South Carolina, originally estimated at $1.4 billion, is now $4.9 billion. The Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) was $600 million, now $6 billion by NNSA’s estimate, up to $7.5 billion according to the Army Corps of Engineers. I could go on.
There are some signs of change at NNSA. I think–finally–they have been making an effort to get a better handle on costs and the actual requirements. NNSA’s move to complete 90% of design before finalizing costs estimates for major facilities is one step in that direction.
But, clearly, more needs to be done.
One improvement would be to not start project construction until the design is finished, yet it seems NNSA still plans to do this with the UPF. Another step would be to conduct a more thorough evaluation of all possible options before deciding to build a new facility, so that it does not spend millions before abandoning the project. For example, NNSA spent some $300 million on the discarded Pit Dismantlement and Conversion Facility before decided that existing facilities, combined with the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Plant (under construction), would be able to undertake the task of cutting up excess plutonium pits.
But I’m straying from the original topic of this post. Let us return to the actual agreement, which is worth examining.
The DOD-DOE Agreement
The first thing to note is that the original memo was listed as “FOUO” (For Official Use Only) and “Not Subject to Disclosure FOIA” (Freedom of Information Act). i.e., it was treated as almost but not quite a classified document. For months after the agreement was first signed, I repeatedly asked NNSA officials for details about the agreement–even acknowledgement of its existence–but was given banal answers again and again. I would be greatly pleased if someone could explain to me why an agreement for DOD to support several public NNSA projects requires such efforts to hide it.
Here is how the agreement works. DOD transfers budget authority from its top-line to NNSA’s, resulting in billions more for NNSA and billions less for DOD. In the original 2010 agreement, DOD agreed to provide $5.7 billion to NNSA over five years. The FY11 amount was an already hefty chunk, at $641 million, but the FY15 amount of $1.6 billion was substantially more, increasing the NNSA’s budget by about 15%.
The agreement identifies six specific projects and one capability that DOD will support, and specifies that the money is only for those items, nothing else. The supported projects:
- Complete design and begin construction of the CMRR-NF at Los Alamos
- Increase pit production capacity and pit reuse capability at PF-4 facility at Los Alamos
- Complete design and begin construction of the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 in Tennessee
- LEP for the W76
- LEP for the B61
- Begin LEP for W78, including option of joining it with LEP for W88 for use on both ICBMs and SLBMs
- “Ensure that capabilities are available so that future warhead life extension programs will allow for increased margin and enhanced warhead safety, security and control.”
All six of the projects are (or, rather, were, until the CMRR-NF delay) straightforward, concrete tasks. Only #7, the margin/surety capability, stands out as a vague and open-ended requirement that one seemingly could drive a rather large truck—or yet another shiny new facility or equipment program—through. For example, it could provide support for the new capabilities that would be required to perform so-called “scaled experiments,” which involve detonating half-size plutonium pits. Currently, the necessary diagnostic tests to support such scaled experiments do not exist but NNSA seems to be planning one anyway.
Show Me the Money
A little over two years after the agreement was signed, several things have changed, starting with the amount of money involved.
This chart we put together lays out the funding shifts. (Click here for a larger version.)
You can see by the time the FY12 budget was released in February 2011, the agreement had gone from a limited, five-year agreement with sharply rising transfers, to a longer-term arrangement with slowly increasing sums. The OMB budget documents indicate a total of $5.6 billion would be transferred between 2013 and 2021. Stretched out over a longer time but at roughly the same total amount, each year’s funding was significantly reduced. For example, in FY13, the original agreement called for a transfer of over $1 billion, but the amount in the OMB budget is $439 million.
The FY13 budget revealed a significant increase in the amount of money to be transferred, to $7.1 billion through 2022. For example, in the FY12 budget the transfer for FY14 was $553 million, and in FY13 that increased to $677 million – still less than the original agreement but a hefty bump nonetheless. Moreover, it seems this transfer is shifting toward becoming an on-going arrangement, rather than the one-time deal described in the initial agreement. Presumably, there is another DOD-DOE agreement that modifies the initial one, but I have not been able to track it down.
Note that the savings from delaying the CMRR-NF for at least five years have not led to a decrease in the Pentagon transfer to NNSA. As indicated above, quite the reverse. The rising costs of the B61 and the decision to speed up construction of the Uranium Processing Facility will certainly eat that money up.
These changes, from a one-time limited transfer to an on-going, expanding funding shift, combined with the major cost increases for the projects, are not encouraging signs for NNSA. Further indication comes from the worried statements of officials like General Robert Kehler, the head of U.S. Strategic Command. He has testified that he is just barely satisfied with the FY13 budget, but quite worried about the out-year plans. (Remember the blank columns above?) Combine those sentiments with an unhappy HASC and one can see trouble brewing.
The bottom line is that changes are probably coming to NNSA. Upsetting your customer (the DOD), constant price hikes, plus the recent break-in at the Y-12 plant all point toward the need for a new approach. It is too early to say what will happen—management changes, structural reforms—but something seems inevitable.