GAO: Pit plans in flux

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By Roger Snodgrass

A Government Accountability Office report found discrepancies between shifting plans and subsequent expenses in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s effort to reestablish a national capability for pit manufacturing. GAO said pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory was a positive step.

“However, NNSA’s long-term strategy for the pit manufacturing mission, and its attendant cost and schedule, is in a state of flux,” the report concluded.

The capability to make the first-stage plutonium detonation devices, known as pits, for nuclear weapons was lost when the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado ceased operations while working on line of pits for the W88 warhead in 1989.

In 1996, the Department of Energy designated Los Alamos National Laboratory as the interim pit manufacturing facility, capable of making 10 pits a year and up to 50 pits per year by 2005. The GAO report, released Monday, noted that, LANL pits were to be made under the restrictions of a nuclear testing moratorium that has been in effect since 1992, unlike pits made at Rocky Flats, which were tested.

The initial plans for the LANL project were redefined, according to NNSA officials interviewed by GAO, to establish a capability to produce 10 pits per year by 2007, a goal that NNSA said LANL has exceeded by manufacturing 11 pits during fiscal year 2007. NNSA also maintains that the costs were about $260 million under one of their earlier estimates.

An NNSA spokesperson said by e-mail Monday that the agency is proud to have met an “extraordinary challenge.”

John Broehm in the NNSA public affairs office said, “It cost what we said it would cost, but we actually certified the first replacement pit about three or four months ahead of when we said.”

But GAO said that NNSA has changed its requirements over time and only recently established a final definition of what was required. Further, they found, NNSA’s explanations are partially based on plans related to a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) concept that has not been fully supported by Congress and a “complex transformation” plan for reducing the size of the nuclear weapons complex that has not been finalized.

The GAO report, released Monday, found more than $1 billion in expenses for related activities, including scientific experiments, security and facility operations and maintenance between 2001 and 2007 that were not included in NNSA’s cost estimates.

A spokesman for the laboratory referred all questions on the report to NNSA. But the report quotes indirectly from “one LANL official “ who said the laboratory expects next year to provide a more representative allocation of the cost distribution across the various programs that share the pit production infrastructure at the laboratory.

“This GAO report is helping provide a true accounting of the costs associated with pit maintenance. It will be useful in future debates on funding levels,” U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a prepared statement.

Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M. said that questions about the pit program influenced the recently passed Defense Authorization legislation, which did not pass the president’s funding request for the RRW.

“A comprehensive understanding of this program must be gained before any decisions are made for the future,” Udall said in a prepared statement.

The GAO report also noted three major constraints on pit manufacturing operations at LANL.

• The current Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building has major limitations due to aging and seismic vulnerabilities;

• LANL’s storage capacity for pits and associated waste is in short supply; and

• LANL’s main nuclear facility lacks space for efficient expansion.

Looking to the future, the authors of the report wrote, “ee(W)e continue to believe that in order for NNSA to be able to successfully mange future pit manufacturing missions, such as those proposed in NNSA’s Complex Transformation documents, it will need a cost baseline that accounts for all costs, including an appropriate portion of necessary support costs, as well as clear, well-defined production goals,”

“The report came out just before House and Senate appropriators take up the NNSA budget,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a laboratory watchdog. He noted that the chairman and ranking member of the House appropriation subcommittee for energy and water requested the GAO study. “It’s sure to play a role,” Mello said.

The investigation was conducted between April 2007 and May 2008.