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What Will Modernizing the Nuclear Weapons Complex Cost?

Incomplete cost estimates for major projects, large fluctuations in the budget, inadequate funding for overdue maintenance, and poor data on critical facilities: these are just some of the problems raised by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a new report [PDF] on the Department of Energy (DOE) and its plans for modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.

Over the next 25 years, DOE and the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plan to spend $293.4 billion modernizing U.S. nuclear warheads and the infrastructure needed for their manufacture, testing, storage, and disposal. Life Extension Programs (LEP) for warheads, as well as the construction of new major new facilities, is already under way.

What they will ultimately end up costing the taxpayer is anyone’s guess, but barring a change in policy it is likely to be well above official estimates. According to the GAO, DOE “has not established a firm cost, schedule, and scope baseline” for several of its most capital-intensive projects, including the Uranium Processing Facility and the currently, but maybe not permanently, cancelled Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility. Moreover, GAO reports that “the 2015 budget materials do not specify when these projects will establish such a baseline.”

DOE claims it needs new facilities to carry out LEP, but if the facilities and warheads are inextricably linked, then pursuing LEP without concrete infrastructure estimates is the nuclear equivalent of building a car while driving it. The GAO estimates DOE will spend $83.7 billion on infrastructure in the next 25 years, a 10.4 percent jump from previous estimates. That new figure is largely explained by the fact that the old cost information provided to GAO was too preliminary to make credible predictions.

The new numbers are improved, but still incomplete. GAO is now able to estimate the cost of new facilities, but says the data is “still too preliminary for us to evaluate alignment” with the needs of warhead LEP. In other words, DOE—and by extension GAO—can’t say if it’s budgeting too much, too little, or just the right amount for the facilities it needs to maintain America’s nukes. And, until DOE starts providing better numbers, nobody will be able to.

GAO-15-499 Report [PDF]

The Project On Government Oversight has previously written that NNSA “insists on building the newest and biggest facilities, but a lack of necessity and poor management often derails these multi-billion dollar construction projects.” This includes the key facilities in the LEP program, the aforementioned Uranium Processing Facility and Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility, which DOE may attempt to resurrect.

Even as DOE struggles to design and pay for new buildings, the agency is failing to budget for an estimated $3.6 billion-and-growing deferred maintenance backlog. As the GAO notes, deferring maintenance at aging facilities “can reduce the overall life of federal facilities, lead to higher costs in the long term, and pose risks to safety and agencies’ missions.” More than half of NNSA’s buildings are over 40 years old, and 29 percent date to the Manhattan Project era. However, it is impossible verify the $3.6 billion dollar backlog for deferred maintenance, since NNSA’s data is disorganized and has some non-critical facilities and subsystems catalogued as critical and vice-versa.

Moreover, NNSA failed to fully discuss maintenance and data shortfall issues in its 2015 budget materials. Oversight bodies need to know about these problems in order to prevent waste and ensure a safe and secure nuclear weapons complex. As the GAO writes, DOE “should aim to disseminate information to the public that is useful to the intended users and presented in an accurate, clear, complete, and unbiased manner. NNSA’s budget materials are a key source of information for Congress as it makes appropriation decisions.”

Implementing GAO’s recommendations for budget transparency would be a good first step for DOE. The Department continues to ask for more and more funding, without showing results for the budget it already has. Congress should not indulge this sense of entitlement with new appropriations until NNSA can meet basic, commonsense standards such as cost, schedule, and scope baselines for building new facilities and repairing old ones. At the very least, DOE and NNSA must be able to show how these multi-billion dollar construction projects will align with the current, reduced, nuclear mission.

Until then, extra allowances should be for high-performing agencies, not for the spoiled nuclear weapons complex.