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"Forget the Rest" blog

April 8, 1998
 

The Department of Energy's (DOE's) FY 1999 budget request for "Weapons Activities" is $4,500 million (M). "Weapons Activities" includes its "Stockpile Stewardship" and "Stockpile Management" programs, and a line for program direction. This year's request, if granted, would be an increase of $353M over the current year and $589M over last year.

By comparison, the Cold War annual average for comparable activities was $3,700M (in 1996 dollars), roughly $800M less than this year's request.(1)

The huge growth in DOE's stockpile stewardship program since the end of nuclear testing is the result of a political bargain and not of any mission requirement. The program needs a complete reassessment, with an eye to pruning away what is duplicative, useless, fanciful, and destructive to U.S. arms control and nonproliferation objectives. More than half of the entire amount could safely be saved or redirected, as Representative George Brown wrote to DOE Secretary Watkins in 1992. 

The suggested savings below do not represent such a thorough reevaluation. They are simply modest cuts which we believe can be supported by anyone who believes in even a modicum of agency accountability. In no case do these proposed cuts halt any of DOE's programs, let alone compromise any of its mission objectives. 

Suggested Savings
Dollar figures are in millions (M), pages refer to
DOE's Congressional Budget Request, Volume I

Aggregate Programs
FY1998 Funding
FY1999
Request
Suggested Funding Savings
Stockpile Stewardship  $1,858.2 $2,188.4 $1,835.3 $353.1
Stockpile Management 2,041.1 2,051.1 1,753.0 298.1
Program Direction 250.0 260.5 228.0 32.5
Total, Weapons Activities* $4,147.7 $4,500.0 $3,816.3 $683.7

*includes adjustments in FY 1998, so that column does not total.
 
 
Specific Programs, Stewardship and Management

(program direction and construction listed separately below)

FY1999 Request Suggested Savings
Total Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) (p. 197-202)
498.0
50.0
During the past year, several managers in the nuclear weapons program have stepped forward to say that the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the largest of DOE's several ICF projects, is unrelated to the reliability or safety of U.S. nuclear weapons. Some say NIF is "at best" useless for this purpose. The prospect of unclassified work at the facility raises severe proliferation concerns. Its primary justification--testing physicists--does not support DOE's crash schedule, and numerous technical problems (target and optics design, to pick two serious ones) make the technical feasibility of ignition very uncertain. The need for the facility should be reexamined, but failing this a more measured pace might allow more of the technical problems to be solved prior to project completion.
Advanced Hydrotest Facility (AHF) Design  (p. 184)
49.0
49.0
At a minimum, the DARHT facility (see below) should be completed before beginning work on the follow-on facility. This facility has nothing to do with maintaining nuclear weapons and is instead a technologically-optimistic attempt to certify entirely new weapon designs without actually testing them, a recipe for essentially unlimited future appropriations . Work already began on the AHF by FY1994. By FY 1997, annual funding for design had reached $19.3M. In FY 1998, it was $44.6M. Close to $100M has already been spent on a facility, the "need" for which has never been even remotely established.
Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) and Stockpile Computing (pp. 39; 96-99, 177-178). 
517.8
143.7 
Only four years after the ASCI line item was created by the DOE, requested funding for this internally-duplicative, "must have" supercomputer program exceeds one-half billion dollars. Costs are estimated to grow to a staggering $745M by FY 2003. The entire cold war stockpile was designed with computers than cost perhaps $20,000 today, and the labs' claim that faster, more sophisticated computing is needed to maintain existing weapons is entirely unwarranted, even ludicrous. This is a program which is, as one retired senior weapons manager put it, "overdriving its headlights." This year's recommended cut stabilizes ASCI's budget at the FY 1998 level of $374M pending further evaluation.
"Other future stockpile activities" (p. 81). 
27.1
27.1
This line contains DOE's program to design untestable weapon modifications and new warhead designs for possible deployment. Modifications to testable components (e.g. neutron generators, tritium reservoirs) can, if needed, be done with other core program funds, for which funding is more than amply provided. DOE is not yet prudently conservative in its stewardship and it is up to Congress to provide leadership in this area. Savings in this program will make possible other stockpile stewardship savings. 
Operation of the "Superblock" plutonium facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)     (no line item). 
?
0
This facility, shut down for extensive periods because of safety violations, is located near earthquake faults and dense residential development. It is duplicative of better facilities at LANL, and unnecessary. Congress should find a way to direct DOE to remove nearly all the plutonium inventory from LLNL and from this building and begin the decontamination process. Savings will appear in the out years.
Subcritical Tests         (pp. 106-109)
82.4
41.2
In the era of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the United States has signed and by which the U.S. must abide pending ratification under the Vienna Convention on Treaties, DOE continues to conduct financially and diplomatically costly "subcritical" nuclear tests at the arbitrary rate of four per year. The European Parliament has condemned these tests, and it is not at all clear how they contribute to the "safety and reliability" of the existing stockpile. The laboratories are having difficulty even fielding four tests per year in any case. The recommended cut is half the program, pending further evaluation. 
Testing Capabilities and Readiness (p. 192)
180.4
36.1
The degree of "readiness" for treaty breakout at NTS is not dependent upon the level of spending at the site. There is no national security benefit from this appropriation. There are no foreseeable circumstances in which the United States would conduct a nuclear test, and no conceivable technical reason to conduct one except to test a new weapon. If we test, other nations will test (e.g. China, who has much to gain from such tests)--and both the CTBT and in all likelihood the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), will collapse, giving any such U.S. treaty breakout a high negative security value to the U.S. This budget line should be gradually brought to zero; a 20% cut is the minimum recommended.
Plutonium Pit Production (p. 365)
66.6
66.6
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) already has the capability and inherent capacity to make 10-20 pits/year, more than adequate to maintain pit production technology and replace pits consumed in surveillance. No pit degradation processes have been discovered that are capable of affecting pit performance for at least two, if not several, decades. The nation maintains a reserve stockpile of about 12,000 pits in addition to its reserve weapon stockpiles; many of these pits can be exchanged if needed with those in weapons. DOE has written that requalification and reuse of existing pits will produce pits with lifetimes equal to that of new pits. Infrastructure funding requests for LANL (almost $300M for FY 1999 alone) are more than ample to preserve this capability. 
Advanced Manufacturing, Design and Production Technologies (ADaPT) Program (pp. 381-382)
62.6
6.3
The ADaPT program states that its "goal is change." To this end, ADaPT attempts to ensure that the nuclear weapons complex is not marooned in technological history, but needlessly seeks to break new ground in production technologies. This portion of its work is counterproductive and a poor investment. Worse, ADaPT seeks to provide so-called "hedge technologies" that will create the capability to manufacture thousands more nuclear weapons. Since a) there is no conceivable circumstance in which more U.S. weapons would be needed, and b) some of this dangerous expertise is being transferred to private industry in the process, the national security costs exceeds benefits for portions of ADaPT.
Accelerator Production of Tritium (APT) (p. 386) 
200? 

"TBD"

200.0
The U.S. is now pursuing a wasteful dual-track strategy for ensuring tritium supply in the absence of any technical risk. The use of commercial a reactor to produce this gas is much cheaper than building a new accelerator, and DOE is pursuing this approach. Beyond this, the "need" for tritium is predicated on maintaining thousands of U.S. weapons beyond those we can actually deploy, but it has now become clear that the Russian arsenal cannot be maintained and will decline independently of START II ratification. This provides an opportunity to save what could, in the long run, be billions of dollars in the provision of a tritium supply. U.S. supply of this radioactive gas will not approach "inadequacy" for a decade, and START II, if ratified in the Duma, would postpone the "need" for production another decade and reduce its scale still further. 
Program Direction
FY1999 Request Suggested Savings
Albuquerque Operations Office (p. 52)
128
25.6
Albuquerque spends substantially more directing DOE's weapons effort than does Headquarters itself, and their responsibilities substantially overlap. It is a case of too many people chasing too little work--and, not infrequently, of inappropriate policy decisions by a field office. Both of these problems (among other systemic problems throughout the nuclear weapons management structure) were emphasized by the Institute for Defense Analyses in their 1997 report, "The Organization and Management of the Nuclear Weapons Program." We recommend a 20% cut this year and next.
Nevada Operations Office (p. 52). 
34.7
6.9
There is little to do, and little being done, at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). Much of what happens at NTS today is make-work. Maintaining capability to conduct underground nuclear tests does not require the budget NTS receives; readiness is largely unaffected by the money being spent. 
Construction Line Items
FY 1999
Request
Suggested
Savings
Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) Upgrades, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) (#95-D-102, pp. 511-529). 
16.0
16.0
This project has not been managed at all well, but construction management problems are only the tip of the iceberg. The facility is beset with safety problems, and seismic studies are now being conducted to see if the building lies on or near an active and potentially ground-rupturing fault, casting the effectiveness of the upgrade into doubt. This line item may turn out to be little more than an operating subsidy for a facility that can never be successfully upgraded and which should be utilized with low nuclear materials loads as a laboratory.
Nuclear Materials Storage Facility (NMSF) Renovation (LANL) (#97-D-122, pp. 491-499). (design only)
9.2
9.2
Originally built in 1987, the NMSF has never been used due to fundamental design and construction flaws. Whether it can be redesigned is an open question--the concrete is bad, the structural design will necessarily require variances from DOE's current safety and security orders, and the passive cooling design requires that the plutonium storage vault communicate with the atmosphere without filters. To continue to fund this admittedly substandard facility on a "design only" basis is to throw good money after bad. NMSF's total cost in 1987 was $19.5M. Now, its design alone--not including the costs of actual rebuilding--is projected to be $38.3M. The DoD's Manzano Base, only 90 miles from Los Alamos, provides a larger, more secure, better-designed nuclear storage facility--one already built--making continued funding of this project completely unnecessary.
Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility (DARHT) (LANL) (#97-D-102    pp. 261-265). 
36.0
6.0
At more than five times its originally estimated cost ($53M, in FY 1993)--and with still more cost hikes likely in the future when the first axis will "need" upgrading to match the cutting-edge second axis--DARHT is a textbook example of "mission drift." DOE should be asked to justify its huge and rapid cost increases (including $m this year alone) in a detailed report. The recommended $6M cut is a mere "nick" in DARHT's suddenly-inflated and unaccounted-for budget. 

1. Today, Weapons Activities receives a waste management subsidy from the Environmental Restoration and Waste Management program. Waste management was not funded separately during the Cold War, making today's weapons budget relatively higher compared to the Cold War amount.


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