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"Forget the Rest" blog


November 8, 2012

  • National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plutonium sustainment programs;
  • Possible reforms of the NNSA weapons complex -- management and programs, both;
  • Immediate nuclear weapons issues related to the so-called "fiscal cliff;" and
  • The overwhelming need, and possible means, to address climate change and related energy and economic issues in the national security context. 
Dear colleagues --

My associate Peter Neils and I will be in Washington next week; I am writing to request a meeting with you to discuss any of the above topics.

Despite being largely shut out of executive branch discussions of NNSA and Department of Energy (DOE) issues for many years, we think our analysis of plutonium issues, including the lack of need for a second large plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), has been proven right plus far.  (Links to recent publications on this topic are below.)

We hope that with the election behind us, the intellectual isolation and crippling groupthink within and around NNSA -- an agency largely dominated by self-interested contractors and especially by its three large laboratories -- can be rectified to some degree.  This intellectual isolation extends well beyond NNSA into DOE, Congress, and elsewhere in the executive branch, where it supports a political status quo that enables the generally abysmal management practices widely decried by some of the very parties which created and sustain those practices.  Our collective failure of insight and political will -- which certainly extends to the nonprofit community -- has led, in our view, to a general management crisis in NNSA.  With its perennial problems as yet unresolved and with no apparent resolution in sight, NNSA and the nuclear policy community face bellwether choices with respect to authorizing and funding life extension programs (LEPs), a new plutonium strategy, and other key decisions.  These choices are being influenced, as always, by the agency's long history of parochial politics, lack of contractor accountability, and unwarranted optimism.

DOE is also a grossly underperforming agency, operating largely in thrall to its parochial "community" of interests.

Meanwhile NNSA's more or less constant project management drama, not to mention the fiscal drain involved, distracts most of us in the nuclear policy arena from any rational reassessment of our collective national security situation.  At the Study Group, we believe the overall security situation to be more dire than is usually assumed, but dire in different ways than the assumptions and interests of the national security establishment would lead us to think.  A minority in the national security community do understand the changing nature of the security problem, and sometimes these insights appear in official publications.

We have concluded, based on analysis which we believe is robust with respect to assumptions, that without rapid investment in decarbonizing our economy and specifically our transportation, among other necessary steps, the U.S. economy will not recover and U.S. national security will deteriorate.  DOE -- and the energy and water subcommittees, as well as the arms services committees -- could provide decisive leadership.  Even the most tentative, small steps could have major benefits.

If you have time to meet with us, please contact Trish Williams-Mello in our office, who is arranging our meetings.


The Obama Administration began its management of NNSA with continuity from the previous administration in budgets, programs, and key personnel, with proposed constant (i.e. declining real) outyear funding.

Then, as New START ratification heated up, extravagant promises were made to Senate Republicans in return for ratification votes.  Some of the programs and facilities offered were unrealistic as to cost, schedule, and feasibility, as well as being fiscally unsupportable.  Our perspective is that the rapidly-increasing budgets proposed were built up from unexamined and often wasteful programs.  In our experience, a significant fraction of the base from which these increases were to occur was not needed for NNSA's missions in the first place.  What NNSA and Congress do not understand is that there is a right size for NNSA programs.  More is not better and is usually worse.  In the end, Congress did not fiscally support this expansive vision, which was partially unraveling for internal reasons that were present all along.

The first Obama term has now concluded without any stockpile stewardship plan or outyear budget.  Every single NNSA project is over budget and estimated to extend well past its original schedule.  We believe some NNSA (and DOE) projects are going to partially or completely fail in the coming years; virtually all will be delayed.  Some already have failed or are in the process of partially failing, with "success" being redefined to avoid "failure."  Some cost overruns are an order of magnitude or even more, measuring from when Congress first invested in the project.  Despite what many think, very few if any of these problems can be solved with more money.

The New START bargain has thus ended, not with a bang but a whimper.  It is not a good record.

Lest we forget, the two terms of the G.W. Bush administration were also subject to multiple proposed project and program reversals.  The Bush Administration used a neoconservative rhetoric of grandiose nuclear ambition that attracted effective opposition and was ultimately futile.  The first Obama Administration used a vague rhetoric of nuclear pacifism that also attracted considerable opposition (and was never meant to guide current policies, as was explicit in Prague but largely ignored).

Despite fine efforts by many people (including all of you), Congress has not done better than this in recent years, being nearly unable even to pass appropriations bills and at loggerheads with itself on key NNSA issues -- not just between parties and chambers or from one session to the next, but also within a chamber and a party during a single session.

There are plenty of factual misrepresentations clouding the air in the news media and from the corporate lobbyists who have sometimes succeeded in getting strange tales accepted by the armed services committees.

So, there is plenty of blame to go around.  It is a very challenging time -- for us too.

Now, with the presidential election in the rear-view mirror and as many months as there can be until the next one, and with no additional term in the offing, there is every reason to quickly reform NNSA -- both as to management and as to programs.  Neither reform can succeed without the other.  We believe the time is right to stress ambitious reforms that can be initiated (if not implemented entire) without significant new legislation, but which will garner at least some measure of bipartisan support and respect.

The present fiscal crisis, which will not go away, begs a closer look at programs and management than we have heretofore seen.  There is a storm coming; NNSA (and DOE) are like trees that need pruning.  The problem is not just the dead wood, but also the strength of the weak branches that contribute little.  More sober, defensive, risk-oriented management is necessary.  Optimism is a disease in these agencies.

Reshuffling leadership, should that occur as is often the case after elections, is necessary but will not be enough, as any new appointees would be subject to the same daunting challenges as their predecessors in the absence of more substantive reforms.

Given the present and prospective Senate composition after 2014, we do not believe there can be any new arms control treaties ratified under this President.  Therefore there should be no impetus in either party to bargain in that context.  This situation, too, allows management and fiscal issues to present themselves in a relatively depoliticized context.

To foster the discussion we need, it's very important now to end the insularity and de facto secrecy that have marked the Administration's nuclear weapons management.  That insularity has been somewhat understandable, given the opposition of congressional Republicans.  It would be highly dysfunctional now.

We also think the Administration should purge itself of meaningless rhetoric (e.g. “nuclear weapons-free world”) that becomes a magnet for opposition and polarization.  (We would be very pleased if the Administration acted prudently to reduce nuclear arsenals; it is the empty words that are worse than useless.)

In our opinion, clarity and subsequent firmness would be rewarding -- politically and managerially -- to the extent they can be achieved.

The momentum created by years of parochial political support for particular sites and projects -- the blind boosterism -- has got to be checked.  The out-of-control contractor lobbying, especially from the three weapons laboratories, needs to be reined in, and there are ways to do that.   Inconvenient facts already in hand need not be suppressed but can and should be used.  Now is the time.

There are immediate opportunities and dangers for nuclear policy as Congress and the administration grapple with fiscal issues in the lame duck period.  At the Study Group, we believe the country should cut defense spending, now.  Should the defense lobby succeed in maintaining its privileged position, our prospects for economic recovery will be approximately zero and our steep national decline will be assured.  In this, NNSA is not somehow “special” -- except in its waste, poor performance, and failure to oversee the contractors that spend about 97% of the money given to the agency.

By focusing on fiscal responsibility, accountability, sound management, and by cutting excess government programs, enough bipartisan support should be available for at least some improvements.

Within this, we would like to discuss NNSA's proposed alternative plutonium strategy in the context of DOE's overall plutonium programs and infrastructure.

Within Energy and Water, means must be found to move money from DOE's and NNSA's "sacred cow" programs that contribute little, toward programs that actually begin to solve important national challenge in the short term, e.g. our energy and related climate challenges.  NNSA and DOE are both riddled with fat.  AT DOE, that fat will be contentious if not speedily converted into job-creating, energy-producing muscle.  We support a strong DOE, but one that focuses more on short-term results.  It has been an agency deeply invested in dreams, but sooner or later results are needed, and that time has come.  We believe the economy will not recover under variations of present energy policies.  Much of this is not in DOE's hands, but DOE has crucial roles to play.

Relatively new analyses relevant to NNSA plutonium sustainment issues, with one or two pertinent older ones, are shown here for convenience:

Thank you for your attention.  We will try to help however we can and we look forward to seeing some of you next week.

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group

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