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April 9, 2013

Bulletin #168:  Obama administration to request major increase in NNSA Nuclear weapons spending


  1. The Administration and Congress do not see the scope of their political and management failures vis-à-vis NNSA, which mightily increase the warhead budget.
  2. Nonprofit cronyism forms a Democratic Party echo chamber, enabling budget increases. 
  3. This week’s proposed budget increase for warheads reflects these problems.
  4. We think the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) has been going hog-wild promulgating new requirements.
  5. Recent blog posts attempt to sketch a small part of the historical context for tomorrow’s budget request.

Dear friends –

The Administration and Congress do not see the scope of their political and management failures vis-à-vis NNSA, which mightily increase the warhead budget.

Brace yourselves.  Tomorrow, even as the Obama Administration prepares to cut the social insurance safety net,[1] it will also request a major increase in nuclear weapons spending in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) warhead complex.   

The ostensible purpose of the spending increase is to “modernize” U.S. nuclear warheads and the infrastructure necessary to produce them, over the coming decades.   This means successive generations of technicians are to design and build successive generations of warheads using ever-renewed design, testing, and manufacturing facilities. 

Qualitative modernization is a very different strategy than more conservative, cost-effective approaches to maintain today’s (or any subset of today’s) nuclear arsenal and infrastructure.   That distinction seems better understood by those who demand modernization across the board – the nuclear hawks, who are very clear about what they want – than by those who passively adopt the lobbyist lingo and acquiesce to such a program.  A “modernization mystique” has arisen, which conforms public policy to private interests, even where it is neither necessary for the stated policy (e.g. nuclear deterrence, as it is officially understood in its various presumed forms), nor cost-effective. 

Comprehensive weapon modernization, building new design tools and production capabilities and capacities, and the large increases in spending necessary to pay for it all, were part of the New START ratification package to which the Administration and Senate leaders acceded in late 2010.  After a final round of promises in November of that year, New START was ratified the following month. [2] 

I am emphasizing the political side of the deal; of course there were policy or management justifications – of a sort – for everything.  As a rule those justifications are weak; some are circular (must have end-to-end warhead work to keep the staff busy; must have a large staff to do all the work planned…).  Many of the assumptions built in were wrong. 

What was not widely realized in 2010 (and is really not much understood even today), is that the ultimate price tag of all that was promised will be much more than was planned and advertised to Congress at the time.  Those who negotiated the deal used the best numbers they had, but they and we now know those costs were not accurate. 

The truly crushing costs, running into hundreds of billions of dollars, are those associated with replacement of 12 ballistic missile submarines, designing and building a fleet of new strategic nuclear bombers, and replacing today’s land-based ballistic missiles and nuclear cruise missiles, should these promises be fulfilled.  Their costs largely lie beyond today’s five-year and ten-year budget planning horizons. 

The awful truth yet to dawn on most of official Washington is that some large fraction of these delivery system expenditures are unaffordable, not desired by most generals and admirals, and so they will never happen.  I am confident that many of today’s NNSA warhead and supporting facility projects are associated with platforms that will be permanently retired, in whole or in part, sometime in the next 15 years.[3] 

In 2010 it was politically necessary to propose, in return for the votes of Senator Kyl and his colleagues, a much more aggressive nuclear weapons modernization schedule and scope of work than was proposed in the late second G. W. Bush administration.  For example:

  • Under Bush the W76-1 Life Extension Project (LEP) was to conclude at the end of FY22; under Obama in 2010 it first was to conclude at the end of FY19, five years sooner.  (Since 2010, the estimated W76-1 completion date has been pushed back.)
  • The complex B61-12 project was not in the final Bush LEP schedule at all; major refurbishments of tactical B61s and the B61-7 strategic bomb (involving Pantex) were not seen as necessary until 2029.  The Obama Administration decision to rush the big B61 LEP – beginning production before the end of the W76 LEP and then producing the new bomb concurrent with the W76-1 and an alteration of the W88 – has created an artificial cost and management bottleneck.
  • Also under Obama, work on a new cruise missile warhead comes nine years sooner than proposed by the late Bush administration. 

It is no wonder, then, that some of these and other projects and various supporting infrastructure projects (all deemed urgent and essential when proposed) have been since delayed.[4]  No doubt more will be.    

Despite these and other economizations we have heard that current estimates[5] have the five-year cost increase necessary to keep the projects in NNSA’s Weapons Activities (WA) budget line on track toward completion  as $11 B.  That is an average of $2.2 B per year more than today’s $7.6 B WA budget – a 29% average increase, and presumably as much or more per year after that 5-year period. 

Such a big budget hole needs a lot of dirt.    

One way to get it is to cannibalize less necessary projects, in whole or in part.  CMRR-NF was the first to go.  Tomorrow, the Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel program will be cut about in half (see below).[6]  The National Ignition Facility (NIF) will be cut back somewhat, and the favorable internal subsidy it has enjoyed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has come to an end as well, which will liberate some funds for other LLNL programs. 

Multiple sources have told us that the B83 bomb, which has the largest nuclear explosive yield in the arsenal (1.2 megatons), is to be eased toward retirement.  We do not know on what schedule this will occur; nor do we know what it will look like in tomorrow’s budget.  When these 610 or so bombs are retired it will be the end of the “megaton era” in U.S. nuclear weapons, and this will be something for the Administration to crow about domestically and internationally.[7]   

Another part of solution will be to assume that big parts of NNSA’s massive contractor overhead can be made to disappear, decreasing the size of the budget hole to be filled.  Such hopes, and how they might be realized, may or may not be explicit in the budget.  We don’t see any signs yet that NNSA is truly serious about cutting overhead, because most of the overhead is officially deigned essential.

Another way to shrink the budget problem is to announce more project delays.  For example, it will be announced tomorrow that the proposed W78/88 replacement warhead (a new warhead, really) will be delayed for a couple of years, providing considerable savings in the 5-year planning window.  This proposed warhead, should it be pursued in large quantity as currently contemplated, would require production of the W87 pits that are to be the cores of its physics package.  Considerable investment is being made in that production right now. 

Other project delays will be announced as well.  I think we will see the replacement schedule for sequential flagship platforms in the Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) campaign extended, and we will see delays in the NIF shot schedule. 

Besides modernization (real and hoped-for, with more and with less justification), tomorrow’s proposed warhead spending increase will also serve domestic political purposes.  Chief among these is keeping the howls of nuclear hawks and powerful contractors tamped down, thereby helping elect Democrats. 

The Administration could maintain “the U.S. nuclear deterrent” (as it is all-too-reverently called) for far less than taxpayers now pay, if the Administration were serious about cutting waste and unnecessary programs.  The reason it isn’t serious, and won’t achieve major savings, is that nuclear weapons spending, including tomorrow’s proposed spending increase, is politically valuable independent of what it actually buys in terms of actual warheads and capabilities.  Eliminating fiscal waste would require openness, housecleaning, and restructuring of the enterprise on a scale for which the Administration (like all those preceding it back to the days of the first Clinton Administration) simply has no taste. 

Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN), former Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development (HEWD) subcommittee described the vexatious nature of the oversight challenge earlier this year, in frank terms:

I’m grievously upset and, I must tell you, ashamed of myself.  I have done my best.  I have had terrific leadership – Mr. [Rodney] Frelinghuysen, Mr. [David] Hobson – great members of this subcommittee, and we’re abject failures. Nothing’s changed….People have been working on this for 20 years – three administrations, both political parties – and we’re still talking about we’re going to get started.  I mean, I’ve got a whole list of projects, major construction projects, billions of dollars burned up in a hole in the ground, and I’m having the same hearing I’ve had for 15, 20 years. I’m just beside myself.[8]

Given what we have seen for the past four and half years, we have concluded that truly accountable management of the nuclear weapons enterprise in the public interest is neither the primary nor the secondary goal of this Administration and of Democratic Party leaders in Congress. 

Oh, the Administration and the people in it do want good management of course and they try – sort of – to succeed, but successive Obama administrations have been so far unwilling or unable to do what it takes to succeed

“Success” has been to all intents and purposes very narrowly redefined downward to mean something like “no (more) major scandals or bad headlines.”[9]  This means that whatever waste and management failures that have not come to light independently are not brought to light and are unlikely to be fixed.   Politics trumps management, cronyism is rampant, and greed runs to extremes in the contracting and “scientific” communities, which have in many cases become comfortable sinecures, pursuing knowledge few want and no one really needs. 

“Managing to the headlines” is endemic in this administration, not just at NNSA. 

To their credit, we will be speaking with senior NNSA management this week about some of our concerns.  We believe we have some answers, if only a dialogue can be established. 

Nonprofit cronyism forms a Democratic echo chamber, enabling budget increases.

The proposed warhead spending increases were explicitly and/or implicitly supported in their formative period by the entire liberal nonprofit arms control community, which is closely allied with the Democratic Party and the current White House.  This “community” sought New START ratification based on a “Deal” that included the spending increases we will see this week, and then some. [10]  

The support of these nominally “independent” voices was an important part of the political “consensus” that the Administration and many nuclear hawks thought had been achieved in the New START process.  The arms control community and its controlling funders marginalized what could have been significant opposition from the political left as well as from some libertarian and centrist “budget hawk” organizations and members of Congress.  Independence, in this “community,” is not tolerated.  

Obviously, powerful budget hawks reside on the political right.  It is from the ranks of Republicans whence came the greatest recent scourge of fiscal waste at NNSA, David Hobson of Ohio, now retired.  (Hobson led the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee in close cooperation with Peter Visclosky, D-IN).  

Only a handful of organizations – none of which were in Washington, DC and only one of which was in New Mexico, namely ours – decried the New START “Deal” and the massive new factories and warhead programs that were part of it.  This is not the place to tell that whole story, but it is a very important one because that deal is the political foundation for the budget increases you are about to see. 

I am sure we will see a lot of complaints this week about the proposed nuclear weapons budget from the very same organizations that fully and actively endorsed this budget plan (including the now-defunct CMRR-NF) when it was devised, presented, agreed, and set in motion via plans, budgets, and to some extent contracts.[11]  Those organizations which supported the New START ratification package deserve considerable blame for today’s state of affairs, i.e. for dramatically increasing U.S. fiscal and programmatic commitments to nuclear weapons. 

This week’s proposed budget increase for warheads reflects these problems.

We believe Wednesday's (4/10/13) budget request for the NNSA’s budget request will look something like this:

  • A small increase in spending for NNSA overall of about 1.5%, which will be offset within national security accounts by corresponding DoD reductions;

  • A large increase for WA, on the general order of 8% if the same programs were compared year to year.  But some WA programs will move to Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation (DNN), which will make the increase in WA appear smaller (perhaps 4.5%), and the planned decrease in DNN will then appear smaller as well; and

  • There still will be a large decrease for DNN, probably about 8% after the above adjustment, led by a $2.25 billion (B) cut over 5 years to the plutonium disposition and the Mixed Oxide (MOX) program (i.e. an average cut of $450 million (M)/yr, or about half the program).

Essentially, the MOX program (and the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, MFFF within it) is being savaged (and presumably reorganized) to pay for anticipated cost overruns in the weapons program.  The MOX program, its flagship MFFF, and its canceled (but only after circa $800 M was spent) Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility (PDCF), have already been subject to billions of dollars of cost overruns and years of delays.  This budget cut, should it materialize on this scale tomorrow, will probably eventually kill the MFFF and the MOX program, over which no tears should be shed.    

I have no idea what spin will be dreamed up to put on this.  Will there be another Civil War – over MOX?  Probably not. 

We think the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) has been going hog-wild promulgating new warhead requirements.

We hear the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) has been busy promulgating new requirements, quite possibly for warheads.  We do not know what these are, although we have some ideas.  "Out of control" and "going for broke" are phrases we’ve heard.  The nuclear bureaucrats Obama never replaced are busy, and they are backed up with a phalanx of consultants and advisers, including some of the most hawkish “usual suspects” from the Cold War.  The spirit of Rumsfeld apparently inhabits the NWC today ("Go massive"). 

It is harder for Congress to cut an arbitrary budget when there is a military requirement behind it, even if it too is arbitrary. 

In all of this, where is the White House?  MIA.  

I think one reason the NWC is "going for broke" is that they see a finite window of opportunity to build nuclear weapons and facilities –a weak, almost absentee President, with the nuclear hawks in Congress largely setting the agenda while the liberals (in Congress and everywhere else for that matter) are cowed into silence, bought off -- or perhaps they just don’t care. 

In the absence of a raid on social programs, the ability of the federal fisc to support this program would be limited.  But that, as noted in the beginning of this Bulletin, is exactly what is being planned. 

As regards the budget increase, public tomorrow, will the international community effectively objectThey may, President Obama, they may.

Recent blog posts attempt to sketch a small part of the historical context for tomorrow’s budget request.

These are here.  We will post again tonight.  

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group

[1] See for example Gaius Publius, “How Obama’s budget threatens Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid,” 4/8/2013.

[2] Alongside Administration promises of specific new nuclear weapons delivery systems, warheads, and factories on a previously-unequaled scale, the Administration made other vague, and at first secret, promises for funding not directly related to nuclear weapons at the nuclear warhead laboratories, as the anonymous “Dienekes” has carefully documented ("Broken Promises, The White House, Special Interests and New START"; Russ Wellen’s explication of same: “Despite Funneling Money to the Corporations That Run the Nuclear Labs, the Administration Finds Itself in Their Debt”).

We have independently verified Dieneke’s claims.  We know that the weapons laboratories’ original demands went beyond the cabinet-level interagency charter that was revealed a few days before these labs endorsed New START (see Dienekes, p. 27).  That charter was designed to funnel defense, intelligence, and homeland security work to the weapons laboratories outside the purview and control of congressional committees – and that of the staff of the agencies themselves (who would not necessarily choose to send their agencies’ work to the ultra-expensive nuclear warhead labs).  The signed charter that resulted is a framework under which memoranda of understanding (MOUs) can be written that actually transfer work and cash.  The original demand of the labs in late 2009 was for these MOUs.  The new lab income was and is meant to be a fiscal hedge against nuclear disarmament for the lab contractors.

[3] Some (not all) reasons for this explained in a blog post by this author (“Perfect storm,” 4/4/13).  That post dealt with challenges exogenous to NNSA, over and above which are problems internal, not to say endemic, at NNSA and its contractors.  As noted in that blog post, the "wish-upon-a-star" folks at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) are part of the problem.  They say that, federal revenues will increase by roughly 25 percent between 2013 and 2015 under current law, as new laws kick in and because they see annual GDP growth leaping up to 6.2% by 2015 (.xls) from an estimated 2.9% this year, with the boom peaking at 6.6% the following year (figures are nominal, not real). 

[4] One of the 2010-promised NNSA projects that have already have been downscoped, delayed, or canceled is the circa $6 billion (B) Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).  This project has been indefinitely delayed (i.e. cancelled) in favor of an unpublished plan estimated to cost about $1 B, saving roughly $5 B.  The presumed necessary capacity increases were discovered to be excessive.  Simpler means of realizing those downscoped capacity requirements were discovered – much of which we believe to be still excessive.

[5] These may originate in the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office at the Department of Defense (DoD), or they may be NNSA’s own estimates.

[6] This is a deeper cut than anticipated by R. Jeffrey Smith in an article posted this afternoon (“Obama proposes shifting funds from nuclear nonproliferation to new nuclear weapons,” Center for Public Integrity, 4/9/13.  Smith’s article is correct in all other particulars, as far as I know.   

[7] Warhead retirements are not just propaganda events.  We can all truly be happy about this, should it come to pass, even though plenty of horrible, genocidal weapons remain, the threat or use of which could never be justified under current international law or any human morality.  Neither does the retirement of one bomb type decrease the risk of nuclear war, or lessen the importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategic concepts.  

The problem is that the B61-12 remains in DoD and NNSA plans, a bomb with yield options as low as 300 tons if desired and as high as roughly 300 kilotons, deliverable by stealthy, forward-based aircraft with pinpoint accuracy (thanks to the tailkit).  National command authorities will certainly consider the B61-12 a more “credible,” i.e. usable, nuclear threat than the B83. 

[8] Quotations, possibly not contiguous as shown here, from the February 14 HEWD hearing published by Todd Jacobson, in “GAO Takes EM, NNSA Partially Off New High-Risk List,” Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, February 15, 2013.

[9] On July 10, 2012, Donald Cook, the day-to-day manager of the nuclear warhead complex for the Obama Administration, apparently had no idea of the true state of affairs at Y-12. 

With regard to the relationship that we have and where we are between NNSA and its labs and plants – I didn't say “my” labs and plants, but you can tell I feel that way…they're actually in pretty good shape right now…Getting to the point where we have oversight of these [management and operating (M&O) contractor sites] which is “eyes-on, hands-off” oversight, has been my aspiration for several years, and it remains so… things are, in my opinion, much improved in the way that the M&Os are running the places for us…I'm not dissatisfied with the way that's going. 

(Donald Cook, transcript of remarks at the Capitol Hill Club, July 10, 2012)

How wrong he was.  Eighteen days after these remarks, three protesters (including an 82-year nun) walked through all the security perimeters of the ultra-high-security uranium storage facilities at the Y-12 plant in Tennessee.  The protesters also had, informed sources tell us, access to the outside of the fragile production facilities in nearby Building 9212.  For an early unclassified discussion of these events see Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General, “Special Report: Inquiry into the Security Breach at the National Nuclear Security Administration's Y-12 National Security Complex,” DOE/IG-0868, August 2012.  Frank Munger’s “Atomic City Underground” blog has covered subsequent public developments. 

[10] For NNSA’s portion of “The Deal” see:

Updated and with DoD components summarized here:

The arms control and disarmament community pressed hard for New START ratification, which was premised on these plans and promises.  Tomorrow’s budget for Weapons Activities, after correction for programs that will be moved to Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, will be a bit less costly than the 2010 plan endorsed by nearly all the nonprofit community. 

[11] As regards opposition to the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), we had no help from local nuclear “watch” groups, which watched, or from groups narrowly focused on nuclear safety.  These failed to oppose the project until it was already deferred, and some may still advocate partial construction of the project as they did for years.  They also worked with our congressional delegation to undercut our litigation, requesting the deficient “supplemental” environmental impact statement (SEIS) that was the mainstay of NNSA legal defense.  The most prominent of these groups were soon after and perhaps are still paid agents of the Department of Energy (DOE).  Some recently worked to concentrate nuclear weapons missions in New Mexico, which if successful would have required even more new construction than NNSA ever proposed.  Behind these groups lies the magisterial hand of the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco, which, through direct and indirect control of much if not most foundation funding in the field, largely guides, controls, and limits grassroots opposition to nuclear weapons in the United States in such a way as to support Administration goals, American empire abroad, and Democratic Party political objectives.  To get the flavor of this fawning to power see this recent article by Ploughshares President Joe Cirincione.  For many years, Joe has never been willing to discuss policy issues or anything else with us.

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