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"Forget the Rest" blog


Nuclear weapons accounts don't add up

By Roger Snodgrass | For The New Mexican
June 26, 2010

With growing concerns about debts and deficits in federal spending, the Government Accountability Office identified an irregular shifting of accounts at the National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees the nuclear weapons complex.

A year-long study released this week found that NNSA cannot reliably identify the total costs to operate and maintain its most critical facilities. The study identified inconsistencies in accounting practices at eight sites that were examined, including Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.

GAO said NNSA is justifying a certain amount of money to Congress for weapons activities but supplementing that figure from elsewhere in its budget. In one example the report found six sites that were budgeted for a total of $558.6 million under an account called "readiness in technical basis and facilities," but the sites actually spent $1.1 billion when other funding sources were included.

Two sites, LANL and the Y-12 site in Tennessee, told GAO that they could not identify the total amount they obtained from the other sources.

The practices are allowed, but they do raise doubts and create headaches for auditors, who can't tie the money to the mission for each weapon. Their sums don't match up to the ways the labs are spending their money.

Questions to a LANL official were referred to NNSA headquarters in Washington.

"NNSA is committed to being an effective steward of the taxpayers' money and we are working to ensure that we have responsible budget systems in place," NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said in an e-mail Friday. "These are ongoing efforts that we began last year and expect will be completed in 2011."

Responding to the report from Washington, D.C., Friday, U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman said the GAO report highlighted many of the problems associated with multiple accounting systems.

"The NNSA is in the process of developing a single accounting system — one that will lead to more transparency and better planning," he said. "I hope it is in place by next year, so that Congress can perform better oversight."

The findings arrive at a sensitive time with ongoing budget deliberations barely moving through Congress and in view of the Obama administration's plans for a $4.25 billion increase in weapons activities over the next five years, including long-term commitments to new projects like LANL's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement.

"Above all, right now, Congress is not getting an accurate picture of what it will cost to operate the new facilities that NNSA and Obama are requesting," said Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group. "The point is that when NNSA buys facilities, especially heavy nuclear facilities like CMRR, it buys a lot more overhead than it has been willing to admit."

The FY2011 request contains an additional $626 million for nuclear weapons activities in an overall DOE budget that includes a $394 million increase for LANL.

The GAO report was carried out between April 2009 and June 2010. The investigators were also asked to assess possible cost savings from further reductions in the nuclear weapons stockpile.

The boost in nuclear weapons investments is characterized as part of the bargain that has been struck between the executive and legislative branches on nuclear weapons policy. In exchange for significant stockpile reductions, the report says, "the Administration is requesting from Congress billions of dollars in increased investment in the nuclear security enterprise" to make sure a smaller nuclear deterrent will do the job.

GAO concludes that evaluation depends on whether the costs can be justified into the future.

"As it stands now, NNSA may not be accurately identifying the costs of base capabilities," the report states.

Contact Roger Snodgrass at

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