October 2, 2012
By John Fleck
From the Albuquerque Journal
Efforts to refurbish the U.S. stockpile of aging W76 nuclear warheads are falling behind schedule and threatening to bust the project’s budget, according to an internal Department of Energy investigation.
The problem “could have national security implications” as the federal budget crunch collides with the need to upgrade the nation’s aging arsenal, according to a report from the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General.
Built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the warheads are carried aboard U.S. missile submarines. An estimated 768 are deployed, according to nuclear weapons analyst Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. That number is more than any other nuclear weapon type in the U.S. arsenal.
The refurbishment includes replacement of aging weapon parts, intended to extend the warhead’s life an additional 30 years.
Design work for the refurbishment was done at Los Alamos and Sandia labs in New Mexico, and the actual production work is being done at National Nuclear Security Administration plants in Texas, Missouri and Tennessee. There have long been concerns about the project, including the weapons complex’s widely publicized inability to remanufacture a mysterious material known by the code name FOGBANK.
As long ago as 2006, the Inspector General’s Office raised concerns about risks the National Nuclear Security Administration would not be able to meet its ambitious schedule for refurbishing the warheads. In the years since, the problem has only gotten worse, according to the Inspector General’s new report.
The risk, according to the report, is that rising costs and a flat budget for the work mean the project will not be completed by its scheduled end date of 2018. That could have cascading effects, delaying the next nuclear weapon in line for refurbishment, the B61 bomb, because the same facilities are needed for work on each weapon. Federal officials have said the B61 deadline is crucial to meet the Pentagon’s future military needs.
The problem shows that the refurbishment work has been too ambitious and on too tight a schedule, Kristensen said. It should not be surprising that these one-of-a-kind engineering efforts should run into unforeseen problems that drive up their cost and push out their schedules, Kristensen said.
The problem, Kristensen said, is an unrealistic project budget and schedule that doesn’t reflect that reality.
“It shows bad management that they don’t take that into consideration,” he said.
An NNSA spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.