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New Documents Raise Questions About Increased Nuclear Spending

Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show a nuke agency up to old tricks.
(Photos: NNSA / Flickr; Illustration by POGO)

There are many reasons to keep certain parts of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex a secret. But fraud, waste, and abuse run rampant when the mystique and awe of nuclear bombs gets in the way of effective oversight. And it is the taxpayer who ends up suffering.

The secrets to creating a nuclear explosion and the materials to do so are kept by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy, and it has a $1.2 trillion plan to build new nuclear warheads and facilities over the next 30 years.

But new documents obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) discussing the life expectancy of nuclear weapons components show that the uranium cores may have a longer life span than originally thought. This may undermine some justifications for an expansive—and expensive—nuclear modernization plan.

Although much of the documents are redacted, likely to keep safe the most sensitive details of the U.S. nuclear enterprise, the remaining details seem to suggest that initial life-span estimates were too conservative. These initial estimates were partially used as justification for plans to build an expensive new facility and revising plans based on these findings could result in billions of savings for taxpayers.

But there’s no getting around the fact that twice now the NNSA has either obscured facts that would suggest a more limited capacity is all that’s required or has pursued an expensive plan without knowing all the facts beforehand.

In light of NNSA’s rhetoric about the aging nuclear arsenal and the desperate need for more money to modernize, POGO endeavored to determine exactly what upgrades were truly needed to support a credible nuclear deterrent. In 2013, we released a report that called for a study into the lifetime of uranium secondaries in order to determine what capacity would be required of a proposed new facility. A study would make clear how many of these secondaries would need to be manufactured in the new building. POGO’s report on the proposed Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) highlighted how the public was being kept in the dark about this number, an important justification for continued and increased funding. At the time, a number of Energy Department sources told POGO several hundred warheads had already gone through the life extension process and would not need remanufactured secondaries.

Initially, the NNSA had claimed publicly that it needed a “big box” design, a large facility that would replace several different buildings in the complex and that had the capacity to remanufacture 160-200 secondaries per year. But just a few years later the Department’s own Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan stated the need was really only 80. Given this shift within the Department, as well as a litany of design missteps, cost overruns, and poor project oversight, POGO recommended a lifetime study for uranium secondaries and a scaled-down design utilizing existing facilities.

Shortly after POGO released our UPF report, the NNSA formed a “Red Team” to review the design. That review echoed many of POGO’s findings and recommendations including the need for “significant and sustained oversight” as well as immediately scrapping the big box design.

“Design efforts on the current ‘big box,’ single structure UPF concept should be stopped while a comprehensive reevalution of program requirements and applicable design standards is undertaken,” the report stated.

The new documents from the time suggest that a study into the lifetimes of secondaries supported this decision. One of the newly obtained documents is a 2010 peer review analysis conducted by the Los Alamos National Laboratory of the life expectancy study for one nuclear warhead class the W78. The review committee examined work and analysis done by the “life expectancy team” charged with concluding how long these secondaries will remain effective. The review team warned against the life expectancy team’s overly conservative estimate of uranium lifetimes, stating that being too conservative would result in significantly increased costs.

“Actual life expectancy for the W78 would be longer than that predicted by the results shown in figure 1. The peer review committee says this, understanding the W78 team’s wish to ensure they have a conservative estimate of the life expectancy,” the report states.

The committee acknowledged the importance of erring on the side of caution when estimating how aging will affect the power, or yield, of nuclear weapons, but warned that being too cautious would not provide useful or accurate information. “The peer review committee is concerned that a ‘too-conservative’ determination of degraded yield will lead to a life expectancy that is unrealistic (too short).”

POGO also obtained a follow-up report from 2013 that included similar findings. “During disassembly, significant abnormal conditions were confirmed. However, these conditions are not expected to have a significant effect on W78 secondary nuclear performance beyond that which has been previously determined.”

Ultimately the NNSA abandoned the big box design, and with the help of significant bipartisan Congressional oversight led by the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the smaller UPF plan has moved forward without the many mistakes of its larger predecessor. But this is the second time the NNSA has claimed it needed a large, modern, replacement facility without the data to back it up.

NNSA’s Pattern of Exaggerating Spending Needs

A remarkably similar situation occurred with the agency’s planned plutonium operations replacement facility. The NNSA claimed the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement – Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) needed to be able to manufacture 450 plutonium cores per year. But after a lifetime study found they can last for over 150 years without significantly degrading the number plummeted to less than 80 per year, dramatically decreasing what would be required of the new building.

Congress ultimately canceled the facility when cost overruns and delays made it impossible to continue, and the NNSA is now pursuing a scaled down approach. But there’s no getting around the fact that twice now the NNSA has either obscured facts that would suggest a more limited capacity is all that’s required or has pursued an expensive plan without knowing all the facts beforehand. Either explanation is an unacceptable exploitation of taxpayer dollars.

There’s no doubt that certain components of nuclear warheads do need to be replaced due to the effects of aging. But the most sensitive, complex, and expensive to produce—the uranium and plutonium components—do not always need to be completely re-manufactured.

It is part of the NNSA’s mission to better understand the effects of time on the many different pieces that fit together to form the nuclear weapons complex. And ensuring that the agency has the resources it needs to maintain the nuclear arsenal is essential for national security. But it’s also vitally important to look closely at what is being done in the name of national security and what a modern nuclear arsenal should look like.

Instead of pursuing the most expensive and expansive option, the NNSA should be looking for opportunities to consolidate its sprawling nuclear complex.

Smaller And More Effective Nuclear Weapons Complex

Many of the issues NNSA faces again and again—massive cost overruns on large scale projects, delays, and largely avoidable mistakes—are the result of a sprawling complex with poor oversight of those who manage it. The NNSA’s eight facilities are located all across the country and most are managed by different consortiums of similar big-name defense contractors like the Lockheed Martin Corporation, Bechtel National, and Battelle, making it the largest civilian contracting agency in the federal government.

But the federal field offices managing these contractors do not effectively communicate with one another or share lessons learned, according to a recent report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. This makes it difficult for the agency to ensure work is not being duplicated, that the facilities are running as intended, and that lines of authority are clear. The report also found NNSA “describes multiple processes and activities with no analysis of what problems will be solved, what success would look like, and how progress is to be tracked.” These issues merely compound problems like overlapping capabilities and a poor relationship between NNSA and its contractors.

It’s long past time to review the Department’s capacity and ensure that it’s appropriately sized and situated to meet mission needs. Currently the Energy Department is still operating with supersized Cold War mentality when it comes to its facilities. Comparatively the Department of Defense has convened several Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commissions (BRAC), independent entities established to reassess the efficacy of military installations after the Cold War. These reviews allowed the Defense Department to reorganize its facilities to be more effective, along with garnering a savings of $13 billion per year.

In 2011, POGO obtained a Department of Defense memo that harshly criticized the Energy Department’s reluctance to downsize the nuclear weapons labs. The memo was written by one of the countless commissions established to review the role of the nuclear weapons laboratories. It stated that reports and reviews since 1995 have found the complex is "bigger and more expensive than it should be," and that there is "excessive duplication of capabilities among the labs."

The review also took a look at the root cause of that growth. The reviewers found that direct lobbying by the directors of the NNSA labs has pushed funding levels above even Cold War levels. Ultimately the commission concluded that the Department’s reluctance to consolidate its lab system would be a disservice to the American people.

Around the same time the Department of Energy Inspector General (IG) released a report formally recommending a BRAC-like review of the National Laboratories. Two years later, in 2013, the IG himself testified before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Oversight subcommittee to recommend a realignment commission again.

“We recommended that the Department, using a BRAC-style formulation, analyze, realign, and consolidate laboratory operations to reduce indirect costs and, as a result, provide greater funds for science and research,” he said.

Yet despite these nearly constant warnings and recommendations for improvement from all the four corners of the nuclear complex world, the NNSA plans to move full steam ahead with their incredibly expensive upgrade plan. A plan that is partially justified by rhetoric suggesting that age has significantly deteriorated parts of the complex.

Without an independent study it’s impossible to know if these claims are true. And with NNSA’s track record, Congress would be more than justified in asking questions. Before pouring billions of dollars into this effort, Congress should commission an independent, scientist-led study by the JASON advisory group to ensure NNSA’s future spending plans match up with the overall U.S. national security needs.