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"Forget the Rest" blog

May 18, 2012

Re: Part I: The nuclear weapons provisions of H.R. 4310, National Defense Authorization Act for FY2013

To:   Jonathan Epstein, Majority Counsel, Senate Armed Services Committee

Dear Jon --

I have reviewed the nuclear weapons provisions of H.R. 4310.  Most are counterproductive.  Many would badly damage U.S. national security for nothing more than partisan political theater, the exercise of ideology, and parochial interests.  We hope the senators on your committee will radically prune this bill.

Overall, the very real problems with the status quo at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) -- and more so, its errant contractors -- can all be fixed without new legislation given a modicum of political will.  Thus the Hippocratic principle applies ("First, do no harm.")  Nothing can replace that diligence.  The problems of NNSA that this bill decries, and which it would exacerbate, substantially result from similar ideological efforts to "fix" nuclear weapons management in the past, e.g. by creating the semi-independent NNSA in the first place.  This kind of doctoring has nearly killed the patient.  It has resulted in the severe management problems which all parties rightly decry.

To save time, we believe the following sections should be stricken in their entirety.  Many of these sections are so flawed that in the extremely limited time you have prior to markup there can be no reasonable chance of fixing them up adequately, even in the cases where this might be possible.  In many cases there is no merit at all to the provision.

Section 1051—Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy of the United States
Section 1052—Commitments for Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Modernization
Section 1053—Limitation and Report in the Event of Insufficient Funding for Modernization of Nuclear Weapons Stockpile
Section 1054—Progress of Modernization
Section 1055—Limitation on Strategic Delivery System Reductions
Section 1056—Prevention of Asymmetry of Nuclear Weapon Stockpile Reductions
Section 1057—Consideration of Expansion of Nuclear Forces of Other Countries
Section 1058—Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility and Uranium Processing Facility
Section 1059—Nuclear Warheads on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles of the United States
Section 1060—Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapon Reductions and Extended Deterrence Policy
Section 1061—Improvements to Nuclear Weapons Council
Section 1062—Interagency Council on the Strategic Capability of the National Laboratories
Section 1063—Report on Capability of Conventional and Nuclear Forces Against Certain Tunnel Sites
Section 1064—Report on Conventional and Nuclear Forces in the Western Pacific Region
Section 1065—Sense of Congress on Nuclear Arsenal
Section 2804—Treatment of Certain Defense Nuclear Facility Construction Projects as Military Construction Projects
Section 2805—Execution of Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building Replacement Nuclear Facility and Limitation on Alternative Plutonium Strategy
Section 3111—Authorized Personnel Levels of the Office of the Administrator
Section 3112—Budget Justification Materials
Section 3113—Contractor Governance, Oversight, and Accountability
Section 3114—National Nuclear Security Administration Council
Section 3115—Safety, Health, and Security of the National Nuclear Security Administration
Section 3116—Design and Use of Prototypes of Nuclear Weapons
Section 3117—Improvement and Streamlining of the Missions and Operations of the Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration
Section 3118—Cost-Benefit Analyses for Competition of Management and Operating Contracts
Section 3133—Clarification of the Role of the Administrator for Nuclear Security
Section 3142—Reports on Lifetime Extension Programs
Section 3143—National Academy of Sciences Study on Peer Review and Design Competition Related to Nuclear Weapons
Section 3151—Use of Probabilistic Risk Assessment To Ensure Nuclear Safety
Section 3152—Advice to President and Congress Regarding Safety, Security, and Reliability of United States Nuclear Weapons Stockpile and Nuclear Forces
Section 3153—Classification of Certain Restricted Data
Section 3202—Improvements to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

I am happy to provide detailed reasons for these views and will do so in a few especially important cases as quickly as I can.  Obviously you have the Administration's Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) but this is silent in too many cases. 

Typically, the above sections seek to replace fact-based, rational oversight that weighs evidence with ideologically-based, inflexible prejudice.  This approach is sure to create severe management problems, both in specific cases and overall. 

The above sections incentivize waste and increase bureaucracy and spending.  They attempt to micromanage the Executive while at the same time creating government structures that will make sure the nuclear weapons contractors, especially at the three weapons laboratories, are shielded from past, present, and future accountability.  They would weaken oversight in the name of strengthening it.  

The three labs in particular should be made accountable for the many cost overruns, schedule delays, and program failures for which they have direct responsibility at their own sites, as well as for management failures for which they have had a major if not superintending responsibility elsewhere. 

The above sections would ensure the creation of spurious new programs to replace existing programs as the latter mature and properly conclude.  They seek to prevent cost-cutting, simplification, and the elimination of redundancy.  They seek to cast doubts on the sufficiency of funding for nuclear weapons contractors in order to drum up business for them. 

These sections make a shibboleth of "modernization," when nobody can say what precisely “modernization” is, or what its benefits and costs of it might be in each particular case.  It is an empty slogan which is being flogged for partisan and ideological purposes.  Things that wear out need to be retired or fixed, or if their performance is inadequate in some precise way, those deficiencies could be addressed as well.  (All extant testimony and studies agree: there are no serious limitations or inadequacies in the present nuclear weapons stockpile.) 

In many cases these sections would seriously impede the President’s duties as Commander-in-Chief and impede his or her conduct of foreign policy.  For example, it can be confidently predicted that many of these provisions would cause diplomatic headaches for the U.S. nonproliferation efforts throughout much of the world – including, specifically, those parts of the world whose close and enthusiastic cooperation is most needed.  They would thereby lower the security of the United States. 

In particular, many sections of this proposed legislation conflict with U.S. disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  As the State Department web site says,

The NPT remains the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. With over 180 parties, it is the most widely adhered to arms control agreement in history. This impressive membership, which continues to grow, is a concrete reflection of the growing international support for nuclear nonproliferation.

At the recent Preparatory Conference for the 2015 Review of the operation of this Treaty, the Chairman was compelled to note in his official factual summary (pdf) of the meeting that "Many States parties expressed concern over the continued modernisation of nuclear arsenals, including in connection with the ratification of nuclear arms reduction agreements, and the development of advanced and new types of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems and related infrastructure."  This muted diplomatic language is an indication of much deeper problems for U.S. nonproliferation objectives than may meet the eye. 

Overall, and with a few positive exceptions, the nuclear sections of this bill could rightly be called the "Let's Pretend We Are Still in the Cold War so We Can Enrich Our Contractors" bill. 

Here are some of those useful provisions:

Section 3145—Study on Reuse of Plutonium Pit
Section 3154—Independent Cost Assessments for Life Extension Programs, New Nuclear Facilities, and Other Matters
Section 3155—Assessment of Nuclear Weapon Pit Production Requirement

Other sections are necessary -- the basic authorization sections -- but we believe these need financial adjustments downward, because the President's budget request for Weapons Activities in FY2013 is much higher than is necessary to meet all of NNSA's mission requirements.  There is enormous waste, redundancy, and grandiosity in NNSA programs, but before even getting to that, there is nearly $1 billion in excess compensation at the three weapons laboratories, here defined as compensation over and above the compensation available to government scientists at federal agencies.  There is at least the same amount in excess programs at these laboratories. 

We believe that overall, addressing the outrageously inefficient management of the weapons complex could save on the order of $2-3 billion per year -- not instantly, but over the course of a few years.  Costs are now so out of whack it is difficult to just how far they could be lowered.  Savings from any stockpile reductions would come on top of this. 

Senators responsible for armed services programs are well aware that this is a particularly sensitive moment in our fiscal history.  NNSA contractors want to lock in federal commitments now, committing Congress and decreasing future executive branch flexibility as much as possible because fiscal constraints, including but not limited to the sequester provisions of the Budget Control Act, are likely to constrain future initiatives. 

This is certainly the case at sections 1058, 2804, and 2805, which would substitute the judgement of one or two members of Congress and their young staffers for that of essentially the entire national security establishment in government with respect to the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).  The SAP properly makes an explicit veto threat over section 1058.  Section 2804 would create a scheme for simultaneous management by two federal departments of CMRR-NF, the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF), and other large NNSA projects, and which would create isolated pockets of military real estate within NNSA facilities (e.g. within TA-55 at Los Alamos National Laboratory, LANL). 

The Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) has no experience building plutonium laboratories and processing facilities and in practice this would create just another cook in the kitchen, on top of NNSA, the LANL management and operating contractor LANS (which has no construction arm), the designers of the facility (which reside in various cities, e.g. Chicago), and the construction subcontractors.  Especially under the ill-advised "design-build" plan, and in the face of unanimous objections to building this structure at the present time from the professional national security community that is actually in government and accountable for their performance, this is yet another recipe for disaster. 

ACE did once build a plutonium storage facility at LANL's TA-55.  It was a total fiasco, as documented by the DOE Inspector General.  This organization was the complainant.  The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board documented their concerns here (pdf).  A good contemporary news report is here (possibly behind paywall so appended below).  This TA-55 nuclear facility was finally torn down some time between 2006 and 2009.  It had never been used for its intended purpose.  So much for design and construction by multi-agency committee.  And this was a very simple facility relative to CMRR-NF. 

Under today's fiscal constraints, this hair-brained approach to force-feed the LANS goose with CMRR-NF has the potential to gravely damage the scientific programs at LANL and elsewhere, precisely as the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States ("Perry Commission") warned in 2009.  Indeed, the House's bill is a prescription for a major train wreck affecting many lives and careers -- the intellectual infrastructure, as that Commission put it.  It risks the completion of the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF), as the ACE itself warned, along with the completion of Life Extension Projects (LEPs) and other programs. 

There is simply no way to undertake several multi-billion new projects and programs in Weapons Activities at the same time, just because a congressional committee would like to make it so.  What will happen is that somebody will discover, as the Administration has already discovered for CMRR-NF, that after initial cost overruns or other problems, that some of the work proposed by NNSA is simply not really needed, and those programs will end, or be down-scoped or delayed.  It will be called, and it will be, yet another management failure.  Then we can have another round of reports explaining what went wrong. 

In the meantime, the interim programs for plutonium sustainment endorsed by NNSA, DoD, and the uniformed military are to be blocked.  How exactly would this be wise?  This is not policy.  It's more like a tantrum. 

This concludes these introductory remarks and I will try to send you specific comments on the above sections later today or this weekend. 

Godspeed in your important work,

Greg Mello
Sunday, June 27, 1999
LANL Storage Facility Falls Short of Purpose
By Ian Hoffman
Journal Staff Writer

For more than $20 million, here is what U.S. taxpayers got: virtually nothing.

What they were supposed to get was a high-tech tomb for tons of nuclear weapons-grade plutonium and other metals inside a top-security area at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Yet quietly, the U.S. nuclear-weapons establishment has scuttled the Nuclear Materials Storage Facility, or NMSF. Los Alamos' NMSF is no casualty of the end of the Cold War, however. It was, by all accounts, killed primarily by incompetence.  The NMSF was so deeply flawed, so poorly designed that it reportedly could
never store even a few pounds of plutonium when "completed" in 1987. U.S. Department of Energy executives pulled the plug on NMSF a few weeks ago.  They plan to spend more money figuring out what went wrong, why the cost of fixing NMSF doubled in two years to nearly $114 million, more than five times the original construction cost.
But NMSF's most fundamental flaws, the reasons its storage vault never opened, are clear from DOE in Los Alamos reports:

  • If you worked at NMSF, there was a good chance you would be irradiated. To reach the storage vault, workers hauling containers of nuclear materials would walk past the desks of office workers. Office workers also had no radiation shielding from the storage vault, which vented unfiltered air into their offices as well.

  • The vault was designed so containers of weapons metals were too close, and cooling air could not remove the heat of their radioactive decay.

  • The loading-bay doors are too narrow. This means the government's "Safe-Secure" tractor trailers for hauling nuclear-weapons parts could pull in, but not open their doors.

  • The roof is cracked and could not support its proposed cover of dirt in an earthquake.

  • NMSF's concrete is weakening prematurely.

  • A special "Placite" wall paint to make decontamination easier is peeling off the walls.

  • Two gas-fired furnaces intended to be walled off by concrete were instead located inside the storage area, increasing the risk of an explosion in a room full of plutonium.

So who wasted millions on a useless building? In short, almost everyone involved, a LANL official says.

Rising expense

"There's enough blame to go around," said Scott Gibbs, Los Alamos National Laboratory's program director for nuclear-weapons materials and manufacturing. Gibbs inherited the unusable NMSF recently and led the last study on fixing it.

Some blame goes to architecture and engineering giant Burns & Roe Inc. and to Santa Fe construction contractor Davis and Associates, DOE investigators found. But most of the blame lies with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Energy and the operator of the national laboratory, the University of California. They were to design NMSF and manage its construction.

"There were enough things wrong to share the blame among DOE, the Corps and the university," Gibbs said. "Nobody covered themselves with glory."

Laboratory managers and their overseers at the Energy Department still were unwilling for at least 12 years to cut their losses and walk away. So the 30,000-square-foot NMSF persisted, drawing Congress to appropriate at least $10 million in the last decade for studies and design reviews.

In each, reports show the pricetag to rebuild NMSF jumped -- from at least $13.5 million in 1992, to $45.3 million in 1996, to $56.7 million in 1998 and finally to more than $100 million.

Those costs were for gutting and rebuilding the entire facility, possibly expanding its maximum storage capacity from 7.25 tons of weapons materials to as much as 27.5 tons.

Yet Energy officials classified the project as "routine maintenance" and "air-conditioning repairs." Those classifications allowed the project to avoid full-scale environmental reviews that may have opened the rebuilding of NMSF to broader public debate and possible litigation.

By late December, NMSF rebuild costs were estimated to go much higher.

The reasons are somewhat vague, but higher standards for nuclear facilities such as better electrical feeds and more concrete walls to shore up the facility against earthquakes played a role.

"None of these are very fancy changes, not very exciting really," Gibbs said. "But when you're modifying a facility to standards expected by the public of nuclear facilities today, it takes a bit of rigor and quite a bit of money to do that."

These added perhaps $20 million, but fall short of explaining why the final repair estimates ran over $100 million.

"We're going back and looking at this project to do a formal 'lessons learned,' " Gibbs said, using DOE's term for dissecting failed projects. "We're going to look at why we're seeing this growth (in rebuilding costs)."

'Cost overruns'

In any event, it was clear Congress would never fund anything like $100-plus million.

"It's become increasingly obvious to both the laboratory and the DOE that we need to look at a different solution. It's too expensive for what we want to do there," said Earl Whiteman, a top-ranking DOE weapons official in Albuquerque.

When Gibbs' group at Los Alamos sent the final total estimate of $114 million to the Energy Department in mid-May, they supplied ideas for alternative kinds of nuclear-materials storage.

For example, Los Alamos could move a wall inside the nuclear-materials vault at its nearby Plutonium Processing and Handling Facility. No cost estimates are available, Gibbs said, but they probably will run to several million dollars at a minimum.

This would buy five to 10 years of storage. After that, the Energy Department probably will look elsewhere for storing radioactive weapons metals, such as a proposed new facility at Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

DOE's Whiteman prefers that kind of "off-site storage" to spending much more money at Los Alamos.

"It's not as if we wanted to store a lot of material at Los Alamos," he said.

This gets to the heart of NMSF's most basic problem, as far as Greg Mello is concerned. As head of the Los Alamos Study Group, Mello has watched the NMSF's evolution and demise more closely than anyone outside the government and Los Alamos.

"They never needed it. The mission was inflated from a fantasy to a necessity and they said disaster would occur of they didn't get it," Mello said. "We've never found any evidence that the 12-year delay in completing this facility has harmed the laboratory in any way. If this facility was really needed, something would have been done a lot sooner."

A General Accounting Office study indicates the NMSF is symptomatic of what is the Energy Department's difficulty in running and delivering construction projects on time and within budget.

Auditors for the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found that DOE never finished 31 of 80 major projects from 1980 to 1996, after spending $10 billion on them. Three of the 15 completed projects are not being used for their intended purposes.

"The NMSF saga is just the latest in a series of Los Alamos and DOE cost overruns and poor management of its largest construction projects," said Mello. "It's too bad there is no effective evaluation of these projects before they begin, before tens of millions of dollars are spent."

The NMSF is being used somewhat: About 20 weapons-program employees work in its offices. As for the storage vault, Los Alamos and Energy officials are mulling ideas such as storing classified documents or non-nuclear weapons parts there.

"We've actually got several good proposals from people. The problem is selecting the right one," said Gibbs. "It will not sit idle."

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