It has been a long week for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Weapons Program as, once again, taxpayers were reminded why it is the poster child for the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) definition of waste, fraud and abuse.
On September 26, the Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General (IG) issued a report indicating that the ongoing refurbishment of the W76 warhead would likely take longer and cost more than previously thought. These problems will also likely affect the schedule of subsequent warhead refurbishments, like the planned B61 Life Extension Program, which has been bedeviled by enormous cost increases of its own.
According to the DOE IG report, over the next five years, the cost will likely be $221 million more than previously estimated. Thus far, NNSA has failed to perform even half of the refurbishments it originally set out to complete by this point. To make up for this shortfall, over the next two years, NNSA plans to increase its production of W-76 refurbishments by 59%. However, the budget for this program is only set to increase by 2.9% each year. According to the DOE IG, NNSA must reduce its cost per unit by 35% by Fiscal year 2014 in order to stay in budget. The report is clearly skeptical as to whether this can be accomplished. Officials at nuclear weapons production facilities indicated to the DOE IG that, at best, they would only be able to reduce costs by 25% per unit. As my colleague Mia Steinle at the Project on Government Oversight points out, NNSA officials still say they will be able to reduce costs, “But they can’t explain how.” This is all to say, the cost of warhead refurbishments is going to keep going up and I would be surprised if any accurate long-term production schedule exists right now.
If that were not bad enough, on Wednesday, October 2nd, Frank Munger of the Knoxville News reported that the design for NNSA’s new $6.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) does not take into account the size of the equipment slated to go inside the building. After spending $500 million, NNSA must redesign the facility.
How could something like this happen? John Eschenberg, the federal project director for UPF, told Munger that “The project prematurely established a hard footprint,” perhaps as a result of having the early design team work at three different locations. Whatever the reason, this indicates a complete failure of the NNSA Weapons Program, which increasingly seems incapable of handling the most basic tasks. In 2010, the GAO released a report identifying that much of the technology for the UPF was not ready. Did NNSA really not know the dimensions of the equipment it intended to put inside the facility? How could NNSA ask a contractor to design a building before knowing what would be in it?
Sadly, the problems with the W76 and UPF are the new norm for NNSA. NNSA’s bad week caps off an equally bad, if not worse, year. Since January, the cost of the UPF has continued to skyrocket; it was originally estimated to cost $600 million. In February, NNSA indefinitely delayed the proposed $5 billion (originally estimated to be $700 million) Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos, a plutonium facility it had been planning to build for nearly a decade, because it was unaffordable and not really needed now, if ever. (The decision to delay this facility looks better by the minute; NNSA does not appear to be capable of one major construction project, let alone two.) In July, the Pentagon estimated that the planned B61 bomb refurbishment would cost $10 billion, $4 billion more than previously thought. And on September 26, the contractor in charge of the Mixed Oxide Program (MOX) announced that the program would cost $2 billion more than its previous estimate. On top of all of this, three activists were able to gain access to NNSA’s uranium vault at Y-12 in an unprecedented break-in on July 28th.
Furthermore, for the first time in its history, NNSA has failed to complete basic reporting requirements like a five-year or ten-year budget plan and a Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, which is supposed to indicate the agencies near-term programmatic priorities. If ever there were a need for the transparency that comes with reporting requirements, it would be for a badly dysfunctional agency like NNSA.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats are taking notice of NNSA’s programmatic malpractice. Both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee have repeatedly cited concerns regarding NNSA’s management of the nuclear weapons enterprise. At a hearing earlier this year, Senator Feinstein said, “At a time of fiscal constraints, NNSA must be more cost-conscious and do a better job developing realistic and credible cost-estimates for major projects. Or else, cost overruns and schedule delays will undermine the nuclear modernization agenda and nonproliferation goals.” In the House Armed Services Committee, Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) is also fed up with the problems at NNSA. In July, he held a hearing to look at the possibility of moving NNSA out of DOE because of ongoing management problems. More recently he proposed legislation alleviating NNSA of the responsibility of securing its facilities with nuclear weapons material.
An interesting question is why, after a decade of its existence, does NNSA’s mismanagement of the nuclear weapons enterprise seem particularly egregious? One possible reason is that under the Bush administration NNSA was handed billions of dollars, but asked to do very little. Almost all of its major programs—the Reliable Replacement Warhead, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, and the Modern Pit Facility, to name a few—never received approval from Congress. Now that tasks actually need to be completed, NNSA is not capable of getting the job done and, unless something is done, the situation is unlikely to improve.