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Costs to modernize the nation’s nuclear stockpile and weapons complex from 2014 through 2031 have jumped $19 billion from Fiscal Year 2012 to Fiscal Year 2014, but the National Nuclear Security Administration may be further understating the price tag for maintaining its portion of the nuclear deterrent, according to a report released this week by the Government Accountability Office. The report notes that modernization costs rose to $187.9 billion in FY 2014, up $19.2 billion from FY 2012, but it said the costs only include about $5.4 billion in its budget estimates for the first three phases of the Uranium Processing Facility, though a recent report by the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation group suggested that just the first of the project’s three phases—moving uranium production capabilities from the 9212 complex— could cost between $10 and $12 billion, or as much as $19 billion in a worst-case scenario.

The budget projections also don’t include any money for the modular plutonium sustainment plan at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is replacing the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility. CAPE estimated that the modular plan could cost about $2 billion. “NNSA plans to construct these facilities or alternatives to the facilities and, as a result, NNSA’s budget estimates for the infrastructure area are not fully aligned with its modernization plans and likely underestimate the amount of funding that will be needed in future years,” the GAO said.

GAO: ‘Utility’ of Budget Materials May be Limited

According to the GAO, the NNSA said the estimates for the modular plutonium strategy were not included in the budget projections because the agency is still evaluating options for replacing CMRR-NF and the “plans were not yet developed enough to include budget estimates” in 2014 budget documents. The GAO, however, chided the NNSA for not providing more information about its future plans. “Although NNSA’s estimates beyond the FYNSP [Future- Years Nuclear Security Program] period may be less precise then the near-term estimates, we believe that including as much information as is known about the full cost of a program has merit with regard to future planning,” the GAO said. “In cases where complete information is not yet known, this could include a range of potential budget estimates for the projects, based on available information. Because NNSA excluded budget estimates for these two projects or their alternatives, NNSA may underestimate the total anticipated cost for infrastructure, potentially limiting the utility of the budget materials.”

The GAO also said the agency has not added in enough contingency time to the schedule estimates for warhead life extension work, ignoring problems on previous refurbishments. The GAO urged the NNSA to better refine its budget numbers in future budget submissions and updates to its Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, noting that it was important for the agency to get the numbers right considering five of seven weapon types are or will be currently undergoing life extension work in the next three decades. “NNSA has an opportunity to continuously improve its nuclear security budget materials and bring modernization plans into full alignment with budget estimates by including a range of estimates for projects and programs the agency knows it needs in its modernization plans,” the GAO wrote.

NNSA No Longer Relying on RRW

Overall, stockpile cost projections from 2014 to 2031 increased by $27 million from FY 2012 to FY 2014, which were partially offset by slight decreases in infrastructure, science, technology and engineering, and other costs. A large chunk of the increase in estimated stockpile costs came from a change in how the agency projected costs for its life extension programs. Before 2014, the agency based its estimates on data from projections for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, but it began to use data from the ongoing W76 life extension program starting in 2014. “According to the officials, the estimates included in the 2014 budget materials are likely to be more accurate than estimates generated using the previous approach because they are based on the costs of an LEP that is in progress, rather than a program that was never executed,” the GAO said. The NNSA said it would reflect uncertainties in program and project plans in future budget submissions in response to the GAO report. —Todd Jacobson

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