Last week the LA Times ran a piece by Ralph Vartabedian on the W76 life extension program and the numerous problems NNSA and the Navy have had in implementing it.
Apparently NNSA has yet to deliver a single refurbished warhead to the Navy, despite the fact that in February NNSA announced that the “first refurbished W76 nuclear warhead had been accepted into the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile by the Navy.”
The now well-known difficulties encountered in reproducing a key, classified material known as FOGBANK figures prominently in the story, as does this March 2009 GAO report on the B61 and W76 life extension programs. The report concluded that “NNSA and DOD have not effectively managed cost, schedule, and technical risks for either the B61 or W76 life extension program.”
Overall I thought the article did not accurately characterize the reasons for the schedule delays and cost overruns. Vartabedian draws conclusions about the technical health of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure that are not supported by the evidence.
According to Vartabedian:
The delay in retrofitting the warheads appears to validate long-standing concerns about an erosion of technical expertise at the Energy Department, as Cold War-era scientists and engineers retire and take with them detailed knowledge about the bombs.
However, what the GAO report referred to above actually demonstrates is that the W76 and B61 life extension programs were terribly mismanaged, not that they were bound to fail or that technical expertise was lacking. To quote the report:
Regarding the W76 warhead, NNSA did not effectively manage one of the highest risks of the program—the manufacture of a key material known as Fogbank—resulting in $69 million in cost overruns and a schedule delay of at least 1 year that presented significant logistical challenges for the Navy….If NNSA had effectively implemented its risk management strategy, schedule delays and cost increases might have been avoided. Compounding these problems, NNSA did not have a consistent approach for developing a cost baseline for the W76 life extension program.
It’s not until later in the piece that Vartabedian notes that “Not everybody agrees that the fogbank problem raises broad concerns about a loss of expertise.” We also get this zinger from the Project on Government Oversight’s Danielle Brian: “NNSA gets away with producing shoddy work…and even lying to the public….Our confidence in the stockpile cannot depend on lies.”
Clearly the U.S. nuclear weapons complex must attract and retain a highly qualified workforce of scientists, engineers, and managers to carry out the business of maintaining the deterrent. Yet as we debate how best to maintain the safety, security, and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, it is important not to mistake poor planning and managerial incompetence for the erosion of technical expertise.