Fixing the NNSA: Expect Delays

March 24, 2014 | 1:53 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

On March 26, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to have a hearing to receive words of wisdom from a Congressionally-mandated “Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise,” which is government-speak for trying to fix the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The panel is charged with recommending how to solve the troubled agency’s many problems, in particular its too-well-known history of delayed, over-budget and/or ultimately cancelled major projects.  However, the co-chair of the panel, Norm Augustine, told the Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor on February 28 that by the time of the hearing the panel will only have a “status report,” not a set of findings, even interim ones.

Photo by Russell James Smith

That is bad news for the House Armed Services Committee, which took the lead in creating the panel and was hoping to have recommendations in hand so it could include implementing legislation in this year’s defense bill. The panel was supposed to have its final recommendations in February 2014 but those are now not expected before July. At that point the House will likely have finished its work on the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), although it is possible that the Senate will finish later and something could still find its way into the final bill.

NNSA could certainly use help. The good news is that the agency has done an excellent job at what should be it highest priority: maintaining the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. While numerous high-profile projects have gone askew, the NNSA and the weapons labs have certified, every year for two decades, that the arsenal is safe, reliable, and effective.

The bad news is there are a number of other problems that need to be addressed. Here’s a short list.

Problem #1: Weak Cost and Schedule Estimating Abilities

The NNSA has been unable to accurately estimate the cost and timeline of major projects. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has clearly documented that the NNSA does not do sufficiently detailed budget estimates before moving forward on facilities and weapons, and relies too heavily on contractors to perform this analysis.

Congress—well aware of this particular problem—already took a whack at solving it. The FY2014 NDAA creates a “Director for Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation” intended to get a firm handle on the NNSA budget and programming efforts. This is an important step.

Problem #2: It’s not just the NNSA

In terms of work on warheads, when it sticks to its basic goal of maintaining the stockpile, the NNSA has had remarkable success. It has far less success when promoting new weapons, failing to win support for two—the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) and the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW).

However, these decisions are not solely in the hands of the NNSA: the Nuclear Weapons Council must endorse any warhead plan. The five-member Council includes the administrator of the NNSA and four DOD officials: the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the head of U.S. Strategic Command. Before the NNSA can finalize any plan to build a new nuclear weapon or alter an existing one, it must get sign-off from that group.

Both the RNEP and the RRW were advanced by the NNSA through the Phase 6.X development process that was designed by the Nuclear Weapons Council, and the Council approved both projects.

But neither project made it through Congress. For the RNEP, Republican appropriators in the House, struggling to find a sensible mission for nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era, cancelled the project.

Following their rejection of the RNEP, the House appropriators proposed and funded the RRW, which they saw as a modest, more sensible approach to maintaining the stockpile. The NNSA took the idea and ran with it, creating perhaps the most telling example of overreach. Along with promises of increased reliability, the NNSA vowed a smaller stockpile, use of fewer dangerous materials, improved safety and security, and a host of other benefits. As the program developed, the NNSA expanded the proposal to create a stream of RRW models intended to replace much of the stockpile. The Nuclear Weapons Council endorsed at least the basics of this plan.

In response to the increasing scope, Congressional opposition grew. Finally, in light of analyses that found that the lifetime of plutonium pits was much greater than previously estimated and that life extension programs could readily maintain the stockpile, Congress eliminated funding for the RRW.

More recently, the NNSA laid out a “3+2” plan for the future stockpile, in which the United States would deploy three interoperable missile warheads, and two air-delivered weapons—a gravity bomb and a cruise missile. The interoperable warheads could be deployed, in different aeroshells, on both Minuteman ICBMs and Trident SLBMs. The NNSA’s FY14 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan lays out the approach and cites an estimated cost of $60 billion for the five weapons programs through 25 years, although the program would not be finished at that point.

The Nuclear Weapons Council officially endorsed the “3+2” proposal in late 2012.

But now this plan too has slipped significantly. In the FY2015 budget request, the NNSA delayed the planned first interoperable warhead for five years, with the first production not scheduled until 2030, well beyond the budget horizon.

Any approaches to “fixing” the NNSA must also turn the Nuclear Weapons Council into a body that can produce an achievable and affordable plan to maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile. One idea would be to increase the level of budget expertise on the Council, either through the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office (already an adviser to the Council) or through the Office of Management and Budget itself.

Problem #3: When Digging a Hole

When the NNSA seeks to break new ground (literally and figuratively), it runs into problems. It proposed three major new facilities—the Modern Pit Facility, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) and the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility (PDCF)—that were later abandoned as unneeded, but only after the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) may be significantly restructured due to cost overruns. The mixed oxide (MOX) program to dispose of excess plutonium is going into “cold stand-by.” Yet another program, the high-profile National Ignition Facility, seems unlikely to achieve its primary goal.

A part of that problem can be addressed by better cost estimates as described above, but a more fundamental change is required.

Specifically, for any particular goal, the first requirement is to thoroughly explore whether any combination of existing facilities and capacities can meet that need. If it is established that they cannot, then an approach should be developed that requires the minimal possible investment in new facilities.

That does not seem to be how the NNSA works. Instead, it appears as if the agency sees a need and proposes a new facility to meet it. At that point, the proposed new facility becomes a vehicle to add a host of new desired but not essential capabilities. The NNSA is not the only agency where this problem exists, but it seems to be rampant there. This phenomenon leads to massive cost overruns and schedule delays.

The fundamental problem seems to be that the NNSA does not have the ability to balance the combination of:

  1. the interests of the nuclear weapons labs;
  2. requirements placed on it by the Department of Defense;
  3. the appropriate investment in science and technology that has benefits beyond nuclear weapons programs; and
  4. the desire of contractors and the agency itself for long-term, high-level funding.

Any solution must find a way to address those often competing demands.

Problem #4: Exploiting Presidential guidance

Starting with the RRW and continuing with the B61 life extension program (one big ticket program that is, with a fair bit of budget apprehension, passing through Congress), the NNSA has emphasized the need to increase the safety and security of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Toward that end, the NNSA has placed a clear priority on intrinsic changes to the warhead, with a focus on options that would require changes to the nuclear explosive package.

It is worth noting that the independent science advisory group JASON reviewed the NNSA’s proposed life extension program for the B61, including the proposed improvements in safety and security. It found that the preferred option would make some modest improvements, but noted that the B61 already has “substantial safety and security capabilities.”

That has not stopped the agency from pressing ahead. To make its case for increasing safety and security, the NNSA points to National Security Presidential Directive 28, United States Nuclear Weapons Command and Control, Safety, and Security, from June 2003. According to the NNSA, this directive mandates that safety and security improvements be a part of any life extension program.

While it is difficult to argue against improved safety and security, the goal must be pursued as part of a stockpile-wide, cradle to grave assessment, one that looks at the full spectrum of risks. For example, extrinsic changes in transportation, guards, gates and the like may increase security more quickly and cheaply than intrinsic approaches. Moreover, intrinsic changes that entail modifications to the nuclear explosive package raise troubling questions about warhead reliability and could lead to calls for a return to nuclear testing.

A revised guidance from the President that requires explicit cost/benefit assessments and comparison of intrinsic versus extrinsic approaches seems to be in order.

Photo by Russell James Smith