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Project on Government Oversight

POGO Letter to DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman, regarding the plutonium pit production program

The Honorable Samuel W. Bodman
Secretary
U.S. Department of Energy
1000 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC   20585

Via Facsimile: (202) 586-4403

Hard copy to follow

Dear Secretary Bodman:

We have a growing concern with the plutonium pit production program being conducted by NNSA. POGO has learned that the first U.S. nuclear warhead trigger, or plutonium pit, manufactured in almost 20 years required 72 waivers (7 administrative specification exception releases (SXR), 8 process SXRs, 4 product SXRs, and 53 engineering authorization changes) from manufacturing specifications in its production.   While some of the waivers may have been administrative, POGO has learned that at least some of them were not, but were in fact waivers from technical specifications.

W88 pits are not new.  When the Rocky Flats Plant closed its doors in 1989, about 400 of these pits had been manufactured there.  Although the manufacturing process used to make these pits has changed from being “wrought” at Rocky Flats, to now being “cast” at Los Alamos, the significant deviation from the extensively tested pits raise questions about the program.  Any waivers from specs diminish the quality of the manufacturing process. And large numbers of waivers indicate a poor quality process. In terms of manufacturing, the definition of Quality is “conformance to requirements” (Crosby, Quality is Free, 1979).   Although it is not unusual for a few waivers, particularly for the first unit delivered, weapons experts tell POGO the number raises serious concerns. Furthermore, according to sources, POGO understands the second pit manufactured at Los Alamos also needed nearly the same number of waivers.  Approximately ten of these remanufactured W88 pits have now been produced. As you know, the manufacturing of plutonium pits is a highly precise operation, and the extraordinary number of waivers should give no one comfort that this program is operating well. With this large number of waivers, how is it possible to objectively tell whether the pits will even work?

On July 2, 2007, there was a major celebration at Los Alamos National Laboratory when DOE announced that the new “diamond-stamped” W88 pit was delivered to the Navy for installation in a nuclear warhead, even though it was six years late. (See http://www.nnsa.doe.gov/docs/newsreleases/2007/PR_2007-07-02_NA-07-27.htm) The cost of producing pits at the old Rocky Flats Plant was in the neighborhood of $2 million -$4 million per pit. The cost of producing pits at Los Alamos has been upwards of $130 million per pit. Los Alamos was supposed to have been able to manufacture ten plutonium pits per year by 2001, with plans to ramp up production capacity to as much as 50 per year in FY2012.   At the time of the jubilation and festivities celebrating the production of the one remanufactured W88 pit, it was not publicized that it had required 72 waivers from manufacturing specifications; that manufacturing the single pit had cost over 50 times what previous pits had cost; and that it was six years late manufacturing something we had already made hundreds of times before.

The W88 nuclear warhead is deployed by the U.S. Navy on Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  W76 nuclear warheads are also deployed on Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  However, rather than manufacturing new pits for the W76, the DOE has a Life Extension Program (LEP) to replace W76 components that might wear out, increasing the life of those warheads by 30 years. Barry Hannah, Chairman of the Reliable Replacement Warhead Project Officers Group, said, “the W76 LEP that is currently underway is an excellent program in terms of technology, schedule, and cost. I believe it meets the Navy's need." So why, given the adequacy of the LEP program, are we struggling -- at great expense -- to remanufacture new W88 pits? Furthermore, because the U.S. is reducing the number of deployed submarine-launched warheads, this exercise is even more illogical.

The problems producing the W88 pit underscore Congress’ skepticism regarding DOE’s preference for more expensive and riskier programs to build new weapons and components over proven programs that extend the life of nuclear warheads. So far, Congress has seen through DOE’s efforts to get expanded capacity to produce new plutonium pits. Since FY2006, Congress has zeroed out funding requests to build a new Modern Pit Facility (MPF), which would have produced up to125 pits per year in a single shift operation. Congress has also rejected DOE’s Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which is also predicated on the same logic that the nuclear weapons complex needs to manufacture a new generation of warheads.  POGO remains concerned, however, because Sen. Pete Domenici has threatened that the RRW program will re-emerge “sooner rather than later,” despite the fact that the Life Extension Program allows for existing warheads to remain in the stockpile.

If we are having trouble making a few new pits for an old existing, tested system like the W88, why would we buy a pie-in-the-sky promise that DOE can credibly and competently manufacture RRWs?  It is illogical to be giving up on the current stockpile whose pits are projected to last for over 100 years.  The RRW series as planned does not have a nuclear test pedigree that even approaches the extensive test pedigree of the existing stockpile. The U.S. could bolster the reliability, confidence, safety, and surety of the existing stockpile without jeopardizing that test pedigree.  Furthermore, the U.S. is working hard to keep up with its international treaty obligations to significantly reduce the size of the stockpile.  It appears DOE may be pursuing the Modern Pit Facility, and pressing for the RRW, in order to cater to the needs of bloated nuclear weapons design laboratories that are loath to abandon the ‘make work’ process of perpetual nuclear weapons modernization regardless of the uncertainties caused by such expensive and provocative programs.

Given the performance of the W88 pit remanufacturing effort, it appears there are fundamental problems with current pit manufacturing efforts.  The solution to this dilemma, however, is not the current reckless path: throwing billions of dollars at high-risk programs to provide on-the-job training for the contractor workforce of an agency with a long history of failed program management.  The solution is to minimize the possible risk to the stockpile, to the taxpayers, and to international arms control efforts by focusing on Life Extension Programs and continuing to accelerate the dismantlement of excess warheads.

Sincerely,


Danielle Brian
Executive Director
Project On Government Oversight


 

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