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Bulletin #180: Good news: Obama’s nuclear modernization plan is collapsing; Los Alamos underground plutonium factory briefed; fundraising drive continues

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December 7, 2013

Dear friends –

There have been some dramatic developments recently in U.S. warhead policy.  It is not too much to say that ambitious U.S. warhead modernization plans are crumbling, as we have predicted.   For some years we’ve advised congressional staff and administration figures to quickly seek “exit ramps” from ridiculously-wasteful modernization plans.  It is necessary to turn the steering wheel now, and that is starting to happen. 

What’s at issue is really the “whole enchilada” of the Administration’s grand plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal – warheads, delivery systems, the whole thing.  The reality that this upgrade is not all going to happen is very gradually going to become clear to more people.  

Yesterday we learned that the Department of Defense (DoD) has officially “jettisoned” plans to design and produce the first of three proposed new “interoperable” nuclear warheads, the W78/88 Life Extension Program (LEP).  The idea, which was driven by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its labs, was to design a new warhead that would be adaptable to both land-based Minuteman III ICBMs and submarine-launched Trident D-5 missiles.  It’s a long story, but the Navy never really supported the proposal.  The customer didn’t want the product, doubted NNSA’s ability to design and produce it, and refused to program money for flight-testing it.  The Navy will stick with its current W88 warhead, which is getting a new fuze. 

There is more.  As reported Friday in the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor (NWMM), the DoD Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) organization has completed a cost review of NNSA’s plans for its two largest warhead infrastructure projects, the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 site in Tennessee, and a mystery plan for underground factory “modules” being developed (but not published) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) as a replacement for the now-defunct Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). 

The CAPE review is not classified but the Administration has stamped it “Official Use Only,” so details are scarce and oral only at this point.  On Friday we have independently verified some of the major elements of the NWMM story from multiple sources and added a few more details.  (In our experience, NWMM has never been wrong.)  As NWMM reports, CAPE estimates UPF is likely to cost $10-12 billion (B) for what appears to be one project phase, nearly double NNSA’s official estimate of $6.5 B for the whole project.  If the whole project (it was divided into three phases this year) were to proceed, and if the funding profile were to be severely constrained (as might be the case), UPF would cost $19 B and not be fully operational until 2040.  Even under the most optimistic scenario, and considering just the first phase, UPF could not be completed until 2030, five years later than NNSA currently plans.  

Common sense and our government sources agree that this almost certainly means UPF will not proceed as planned – although site preparation has already begun and excavation of a massive pit at the site is slated to begin next year.   An estimated $540 million (M), at least, has already been wasted at UPF because of a design error.  It now appears that the whole project was a “design error,” as has been evident to the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) and others since its beginning.  One former senior Administration official colorfully told NWMM, “We’ve already undergone severe cost escalation in the 2010, 2011 timeframe…and now they’re telling me it’s going to be another factor of two?  Well, shut the door, we’re out of luck on uranium.” 

Over a decade-long period NNSA and its contractors wasted $635 M on CMRR-NF design and by the end of this year, $772 M will have been spent designing UPF.  In addition NNSA and its contractors spent many hundreds of millions designing still other buildings which needed (or still need) redesign, or which have been abandoned.  Right now NNSA is spending several billion dollars building the highly-specialized Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) in South Carolina, a giant facility which may or may not ever be completed or used for its intended purpose (or any purpose).  In round numbers, NNSA and its contractors appear to have wasted between two and three billion dollars on unused designs over the past ten years, not counting MFFF. 

There is more.  The W78/88 LEP was to be the first new “interoperable” warhead in an ambitious warhead plan that would replace the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal with three interoperable warheads, another new warhead for cruise missiles, and the all-purpose B61-12 precision-guided nuclear gravity bomb.  It was called the “3+2” plan and it was to guide operations across the warhead complex for the next 25 years. 

Reliable sources say the whole “3 + 2” plan is now dead in the water.  As soon as it was released the plan was considered inexecutable (by us and by staff on Capitol Hill).  That view has reportedly now hardened on the Hill.  We’ve been very clear about the impending failure of NNSA’s programs for years; examples are too many to cite (you might check out bulletins 166 and 168 or the “Dark Inflation” blog post). 

There is more.  The W78/88 LEP was a key driver for the supposed “need” to be able to produce “50-80” plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) at LANL.  Especially with this program “jettisoned,” the need to build (and quickly build) this capacity should be promptly reexamined. 

When what is now a 30- or 40-fold cost escalation at UPF hits the press and congressional in-boxes, along with the demise of the touted W78/88, on top of all of NNSA’s many other problems and blunders, NNSA may find itself in a rather bad way. 

There is more.  According to a five experienced defense analysts, the proposed new Air Force bomber will cost about half again as much as the Air Force is now estimating. 

All told, and drawing estimates from a variety of sources, new delivery systems would cost in excess of $200 B over the next 25 years.  With the (now broken) NNSA warhead plan weighing in at more than $275 B (assuming all went well, which it hasn’t so far) the total nuclear modernization tab runs to one-half trillion dollars, just for the next 25 years or so.  

It’s not news to us that this plan will fail – indeed many in government know it must fail – but it is somewhat surprising that it is failing so fast.  The repeated failures at UPF beggar belief. 

Turning now to the future of plutonium warhead core (“pit”) production, about which there is also some news, a number of alternatives are or were considered and evaluated.  The default plan is apparently one of building two 5,000 sq. ft. underground production-oriented plutonium laboratories at LANL, connected to the main plutonium building (PF-4) and the new Radiological Laboratory, Utility and Office Building (RLUOB) by one or more tunnels.  The CAPE, apparently at NNSA’s request, took this as THE plan, although many other options have been or are being, and certainly need to be, considered. 

CAPE found that this underground factory plan would cost “less than $2 B,” not including the “interim” pit production plan already being implemented and not including operating costs.  We have commented extensively on this plan here and in numerous in-person briefings and phone conversations.    

These modules would be highly stripped-down facilities, without even bathrooms (expensive!) and without many of the safety features necessary in above-ground plutonium facilities.  Apparently that is what makes them seem cheap.  In the event of a large earthquake, the tunnel connections are expected to break, a number of parties have told us.  Ingress (for firefighters) and egress (for workers) prospects would be limited in such an accident.  The facility and the workers in it would be sacrificed but air emissions would be limited.  Happy with that? 

We have advised the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on a study of other options.  A portion of that draft study was recently briefed to a congressional audience by the author, Jonathan Medalia.  Dr. Medalia, assisted by LANL and NNSA, has identified and developed options for increasing pit production capacity at LANL that do not involve modules, tunnels, or other building footprint expansions.   The proposal would convert RLUOB, which was not built as a Nuclear Facility, into a Hazard Category (HC) III Nuclear Facility by changes to regulations, legislation, and/or the building itself. 

LANL implicitly proposed that RLUOB be upgraded to a Nuclear Facility in June, 2012 but it has long been apparent that the extremely heavy mechanical equipment being installed in RLUOB was much greater than that required for a radiological laboratory, despite protestations to the contrary from project staff.  The true story of the cost and schedule overruns and changing RLUOB missions has yet to be told.  To this day, NNSA and LANL falsely say RLUOB was built “on time and on budget,” but RLUOB has yet to open its laboratories.  We have learned that without a HC III mission, which is illegal in many ways, RLUOB’s laboratories have no pit-related mission – which mission was the raison d’etre for RLUOB in the first place. 

Needless to say, all this multi-billion dollar decisionmaking about the nation’s plutonium warhead future requires, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) an environmental impact statement (EIS).  None of the plans currently under consideration have been analyzed in any EIS.  NNSA has wasted billions of dollars trying to figure out what to do while avoiding any real analysis of alternatives. 


Greg and Trish, for the Study Group



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