LASG header
Follow TrishABQ on Twitter Follow us
"Forget the Rest" blog


Permalink for this bulletin (Please give us until 5 pm MST to get this posted.)

Send a blank email to subscribe or unsubscribe to these bulletins.
Forward to anyone interested. Contribute, please! Contact us. Volunteer!
Facebook: Los Alamos Study Group; Twitter: @TrishABQ; Blog: Forget the Rest
Local letters to members (ask us if you would like to receive these); bulletins like this; home page;
Key resources on nuclear weapons ban treaty negotiations, plutonium and pit production in Los Alamos, internships


Bulletin 229: Overview of some NNSA issues

February 20, 2017

Dear friends and colleagues –

Here, lightly edited (but with many failings preserved), is a February 13, 2017 letter we hurriedly sent to selected congressional and executive branch staff and a few others, following an early February trip to Capitol Hill. This was a generic follow-up letter; most DC colleagues received other materials and correspondence as well.

We are very grateful to those who make these trips possible.

We are sending this not just for its issue content but also because we thought our membership and others in the nuclear weapons field should be aware of our general legislative priorities at this point in 2017. Sending this letter is the fastest way to do that.

For some it may be too detailed; for others and for us, it is far from detailed enough (especially at 6.). Time was and is limited.

If you would like us to write about any of these matters in greater detail for your publication, or discuss them on the radio, or present them at a house meeting or college seminar, let us know.

We believe it is best to offer normative policy, as we see it, both within the current paradigm and without that constraint. 

Bracketed explanations of acronyms have been added.

Here's the letter --

  1. Some DOE [Department of Energy] and NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration, a subset of DOE] programs are likely to fail. Some Weapons Activities [DOE's and NNSA's largest budget line, for nuclear warheads] programs, and the MOX [Mixed-Oxide reactor fuel] program, are unnecessary and should fail. All of us should do our best to pull the plug on failing and/or unneeded Weapons Activities programs ASAP, as part of our responsibility to the new administration.
  2. All parties need facts and data. The growth of de facto secrecy regarding unclassified information leads to bad government decisions. 
  3. Pit [plutonium warhead core] production: requirements and infrastructure
  4. IW-1 [Interoperable Warhead #1]
  5. Nuclear winter and the new NPR [Nuclear Posture Review]
  6. Other, larger, issues

Dear colleagues --

Thank you for meeting with me this past week.

I would like to expand slightly on some of the themes we discussed, and add one or two others. We can try to answer any further questions you or your bosses may have by phone or email pending another trip to Washington.

Feel free to copy this message to anyone.

1. Some DOE and NNSA programs are likely to fail. Some Weapons Activities programs, and the MOX program, are unnecessary and should fail. All of us should do our best to pull the plug on failing and/or unneeded Weapons Activities programs ASAP, as part of our responsibility to the new administration. 

During the presidential transition there is an understandable tendency to wait and see how the political terrain, roster of appointees, etc. develop. As I see it, normative nuclear policy decisions are not very dependent on who sits in the White House, and the present interregnum is a good time for truth-based (as opposed to: party-based) initiatives. These will bear fruit, i.e. final decisions, when the time is ripe.

Many of the flawed nuclear weapons and warhead policies we see today are the result of "kicking the can down the road" for years, postponing the day when programs are reconciled to common-sense, conservative requirements that include infrastructure stewardship, and which are aligned with fiscal realities.

The inevitable future of the NNSA weapons complex is one that is humbler than at present. This may happen by thoughtful oversight and planning -- by far the safest and cheapest way -- or by accident, or by reaction to strong -- not to say crushing -- new realities. The typical grandiosity of the laboratory directors, the ideological cant and pork-barrel interests of some in Congress, and the bizarre, aggressive ideas floating in from the Air Force especially (though not only from that service) and some of our think tanks -- all these and other contributors to grandiosity must be weeded out and resisted so that NNSA can do a creditable job with its core mandate. [That mandate is questioned in 6., below]

Program must sooner or later shrink to meet realistic funding levels and management span, or else some programs will (increasingly) fail -- whether all by themselves because of inherent problems, because of increasing fiscal pressure, or because of some kind of external opposition. Leaving aside for the moment what should be done, there needs to be a realistic assessment of what actually can be done -- an affordability assessment. Neither DOE nor congressional oversight have provided this. 

The notion that government can grow the nuclear weapons program at this moment in world history, as semi-articulated in the recent Defense Science Board report, proceeds from a very thick-walled echo chamber that is deeply out of touch with changes in "the outside world." It is a cartoon, a Strangelovian self-parody that will be effectively opposed by a range of domestic and diplomatic interests -- and simply ignored by the young scientists whom the authors imagine will happily work on new nuclear weapons. Neither will the NNSA production complex be highly responsive, under all possible budget scenarios.

The notion that a congressional committee can decree an arbitrary requirement -- such as the current pit production requirement, which is based ultimately on obsolete, fallacious contractor representations processed through DoD "decision-making" -- and have it become realistic just by saying so is ridiculous and will lead to heartache. It is no different than imagining that the universe projected on the ceiling of a planetarium is actually what is happening outside. The machinery of government -- the projector in this simile -- loses efficacy and credibility when it diverges from larger realities. There is not much more to lose.

Here is a partial list of DOE programs in the 050 [national defense] account which are likely to fail in my opinion. Some are discussed further below. Weapons Activities programs which may and should fail are highlighted in red:

  • Interoperable Warhead #1 (IW-1), and with it the 3+2 stockpile plan. IW-1 spans too many differences between existing warheads. The W88 is going to be LEPed, which means the "IW-1" is really a warhead for the Air Force. The Air Force would be happy enough -- indeed happier, if reports are correct -- with a LEPed W78, which has lower certification and schedule risk, and cost. Pushing the IW-1 schedule out circa 20 years would better align the "needs" of the Air Force and Navy when and if the time ever comes for that warhead. In any case that time is not now.
  • With the demise of IW-1, the "3+2" stockpile plan will also ride into the sunset.
  • Large-scale pit production ("50-80" pits/year). There is no need for stockpile pit production at all. LANL [Los Alamos National Laboratory] has neither the culture nor the deep institutional interest to support it. UC [the University of California, the previous LANL management and operating (M&O) contractor] didn't, LANS [Los Alamos National Security, LLC, the current LANL M&O contractor] doesn't, and the next contractor won't either.
  • Pit production underground "modules", an entirely non-cost-effective, ill-timed, poorly-engineered concept to satisfy a non-existent "need." A contractor gravy train and nothing more.
  • The MOX program, even if the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) is somehow successfully completed. After fuel fabrication, MOX depends on the successful operation of nuclear reactors and then on the successful construction and operation of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) storage and disposal facilities. The cost is staggering and unaffordable, the combined risk of failure very high, approaching certainty.  
  • Meanwhile DOE has no serious Pu disposition program other than MOX. "Dilute and dispose" is going nowhere fast and is also much too expensive. It is also too dependent on a single facility with limited space (WIPP) [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant]. Affordable, space-conserving, prompt options (e.g. direct disposal of "sterilized" pits) are not being sufficiently considered. 
  • The Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) at Hanford, which is currently the nation's largest civil engineering project I believe. Parts of it may eventually work. I am far from an expert but I believe a couple of fundamental errors were made at the beginning, in project scope and conception. What's "Plan B?"
  • Many other cleanups I am sure. DOE EM [Environmental Management] needs more money, and of course the work needs to be done faster and more safely in some cases.

If DOE and NNSA, with their congressional overseers, cannot manage their infrastructure and operations better, we may also see collapses of basic capabilities in plutonium, uranium (and for all I know, lithium). This risk is fairly high for plutonium and is made worse by the "module" plan. One recent "tip of the iceberg" report and accompanying press articles:

The current 2,349 excess nuclear weapons facilities DOE is managing, with their combined $32 billion D&D price tag and 1,000 more facilities to be surplussed in the next decade, are bleeding DOE and NNSA. Whatever happened to reducing site building footprints? I suspect that the true annual cost of maintaining these empty (and many cases contaminated) facilities exceeds DOE's estimates, when security recapitalization and operational costs are included. (See: Deactivation and Decommissioning Report to Congress.pdf .)

Here's the point. When (not if) some of these programs fail, DOE and NNSA may, if we are lucky and begin to prepare now, experience a "phase change" or "paradigm shift" to a humbler, better-managed future. This is what I think all parties should be working toward.

On the weapons side of NNSA, poorly-justified programs which are not necessary to maintain the present triad of nuclear forces -- including all those above and more (see below) -- should be jettisoned now, without a moment's regret.

The US would benefit from a debate about its nuclear deterrent, but the above kinds of cuts are relatively easy and could be preliminary to that debate.

Adding additional money to the NNSA pile will not help. Given today's (excessive) mandates, the agency's contractors will easily spend any amount that can be supplied -- without improving program performance.

2. All parties need facts and data. The growth of de facto secrecy regarding unclassified information leads to bad government decisions.

Neither Congress nor the public know, for example, what is the upper limit for the DoD-estimated cost of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). We believe it might be $150 billion. As Secretary Mattis has testified (in 2016), and as former General Cartwright and former DoD Sec. William Perry have both stated, we believe the GBSD has no deterrent value. But we do not have a complete DoD estimate bracketing the cost for this system.

To take another example dear to us, as far as the public knows there has never been any (open) government analysis of pit production infrastructure options. When nothing is ever published and there is no external peer review, can an "analysis" be said to truly and objectively even exist? [sorry; this is a poor use of George Berkeley]. This is how NNSA screws up again and again. I works in a closet crowded with interest-conflicted parties.

To take another example, we do not know the salaries of cognizant contractor managers. It's important. At LANL, during a time when project management was poor, when key facilities (plutonium and tritium) were shut down, when the WIPP fiasco was generated and the criticality safety team was scattered to the winds, the LANL director salary was quite high. How high precisely, we do not know. Nor do we know the salaries of key deputies. But we do know the director's salary increased by a factor of 4 over the decade ending in 2013. 

Those of you who have only been in government a few years may not be able to tell that today's DOE and related agencies, and cognizant congressional committees, are far less transparent than those of the Admiral Watkins (George H.W. Bush) era.

I would now like to touch upon the high points of a few specific programs.

3. Pit production: requirements and infrastructure

From this web page you can access essentially all the pertinent background on pit production issues. Though we do not have every detail, we believe the unclassified public record, taken together, is sufficient to make highly-informed, top-line decisions on this subject. 

The requirement to demonstrate a "50-80" pit per year production rate by 2027 is an arbitrary four years earlier than the 2031 requirement from DoD (see "Assessment of Nuclear Weapon Pit Production Requirements, report from Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel to HASC, Jan 16, 2014).

Four years is a major, costly, risky acceleration. The DoD requirement is itself arbitrary, resting primarily on representations by LANL of the capacity of LANL facilities assuming the subsequently-cancelled CMRR-NF, and not on stockpile requirements. (See the frank explanations by Linton Brooks and John Harvey at electronic pages 67-71 in, which are print pages 5-9 in Medalia, Congressional Research Service, “U.S. Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production Options for Congress.”)

An unclassified estimate of the quantities and disposition of pits of each type in the stockpile can be found on p. 20 of my 2010 pit production recommendations, kindly posted by NNSA here. The abstract of those 2010 recommendations still reads pretty well, I think:

A strategy that conserves production capability in existing and nearly-completed Los Alamos facilities for the foreseeable future with neither stockpile production nor expansion of capacity, neither of which are needed, is the one that best minimizes risks, maximizes opportunities, harmonizes goals, and avoids waste of all kinds.  Planning for potential stockpile contingencies due to pit failure, known to be extremely unlikely, could be adequately, easily, and cheaply addressed in any of several ways, including by providing for potential pit reuse and, as a very last resort, contingency production in existing facilities.  Current infrastructure expansion plans, which include more than $2 billion (B) [as of 2017: $6 B (here)] in additional new pit production facilities beyond the ones already under construction, are unnecessary, ill-timed, and incur substantial program risks.  Gratuitous infrastructure investments and gratuitous pit manufacturing, should they continue or even increase, will squander the present opportunity to bring the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) pit infrastructure and management strategies into greater harmony with its nuclear nonproliferation mission and today’s fiscal realities.  Even gratuitous pit re-use is wasteful, provocative, and may lower certification confidence.  For all practical purposes stockpile pit production will never be needed again and is therefore a poor basis for pit program management and stability.  

Our August 10, 2016 summary ("Congressional auditors flay Los Alamos plutonium plans") of the important GAO-16-585: "NNSA Needs to Clarify Requirements for Its Plutonium Analysis Project at Los Alamos," is recommended.

That GAO critique was, in a word, devastating. It is certainly everything NNSA and Congress need to kill the incipient module project.

Even assuming a near-term (2027) requirement for producing 50-80 pits/year in single-shift operations, which is beyond what Congress has required, new production "modules" are not needed. Properly managed, existing processing and analytical facilities could do that, as the Congressional Research Service analysis and others linked at this web page will demonstrate to the interested reader. It is not clear to me that new underground modules would add any sustainable production capacity. 

An incisive critique of the way PF-4 was being managed at the time can be found in Appendix H of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, Report of the Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure Task Force, "Recommendations for the Nuclear Weapons Complex of the Future" July 13, 2005, at pp. 5&6. But what, precisely, is the need to be more efficient? There is none.

Today, PF-4 has significant unused internal space and continues to be managed poorly while re-investment in appropriate safety systems lags (see for example these recent DNFSB comments). I probably don't need to remind you that PF-4 was wholly or partially shut down from June 2013 to near the end of FY 2016. It is not fully operational today, we believe,

It would be quite premature to rely upon a four-year acceleration of is really an unexamined, Bush Administration pit production requirement (contained in the Hagel letter linked above), or to commit to expensive new "modules," while a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is in process.

It is however not premature to raise -- and raise everywhere, including to the NPR drafting committee -- the issues we have raised against new "modules." Neither is premature to invest in the safety of existing facilities, the foundation of every possible program choice, or to find some way to improve the LANL management and safety culture.

Underground "modules" should be killed, for righteous and managerially-sufficient causes, independent of the fate of IW-1.

Apart from all this, should present plans be pursued without a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), they could be found illegal. 

NNSA has been completely unwilling to discuss policy issues related to plutonium pits at LANL with us for most of the past decade, apart from discussions with Ms. Creedon, which were not at any level of detail.

NNSA's attempts to expand plutonium pit production infrastructure at LANL and elsewhere have largely failed. There have been incremental and supporting improvements and reinvestments to be sure. But just as we consistently predicted six or more years ago, NNSA's grandiose ambitions have left the agency with barely even an operating plutonium facility, for years at a time. Lack of concern about the $500 million wasted on CMRR-NF [Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility] hints that fiscal waste -- that is, the transfer of unaccountable funds to LANS -- was the object for some people.

The same cultural attitudes and lack of accountability at LANL that led to the CMRR-NF debacle also resulted in the WIPP shutdown as well as other project failures. LANL is now only weapons complex site with "red" and "yellow" project management warnings in the current DOE project management "dashboard."

We are not in favor of the present $1.4 billion (total cost) plan for the re-vamped Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB), slated to become a Hazard Category III nuclear facility with a price tag greater (in constant dollars) than the Golden Gate Bridge. We have little idea of what taxpayers are buying for that kind of money in this small building. See item 2. (secrecy) above!

4. IW-1

Upon information and belief, the Air Force would be happy with a W78 Life Extension Program (LEP) instead of IW-1...Surely this information is available to Members and cleared staff on the cognizant congressional committees.... 

The IW-1 question will no doubt be addressed in the new NPR...

This was a program very poorly justified from the outset. Rhetorically, just how precisely has it been allowed to continue for so long, with no one to supply the coup de grace?

As far as I can tell, the interoperable warhead program was always, at bottom, a Livermore jobs program. Once I sat at lunch with various lab and NNSA people. I remarked that the 3+2 plan was really terrible. "Why," said my LLNL [Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory] neighbor, "I wrote that plan, while detailed to [NNSA] from [LLNL]!"

IW-1 is the only concrete management excuse for an expanded pit production requirement in the 2020s, and even then it is only an excuse if an upload hedge [to re-MIRV ICBMs] is required.

5. Nuclear winter and the new NPR

Will the new NPR acknowledge in any way the reality that burning down cities with thermonuclear weapons will, beyond a relatively low threshold of nuclear use, create a "nuclear winter" that threatens human survival altogether?

Upon information and belief, members of the Nuclear Weapons Council explicitly discounted nuclear winter studies last year, probably in ignorance of the fact that earlier concerns have been more than confirmed with modern climate models. Please see for example, "Turning a Blind Eye Towards Armageddon — U.S. Leaders Reject Nuclear Winter Studies," Federation of American Scientists, Jan 9, 2017.

6. Other, and larger, issues

This final section is a miscellany, very abbreviated for the sake of time. I include it in the hope that you will be empowered to think, at times, somewhat "out of the box." Someone has to.

We did not discuss with you at any length the proposed Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which is expected to cost (we believe) between $85 B and $150 B. We would eliminate the ground-based leg of the triad for reasons articulated by James Cartwright, William Perry, James Mattis, and Bruce Blair.

I think Blair's arguments, expressed frequently in print, go more toward elimination of ICBMs than toward a change in their readiness posture. Were ICBMs de-alerted they might as well be scrapped -- which is an excellent idea. They are dangerous, as these former officers know, and they are also redundant, which brings another kind of danger, given the accuracy and number of US submarine-launched warheads. Excess nuclear weapons, which these are, increase danger.

The proposed Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile is a terrible idea for all the reasons usually stated. The W80-4 warhead LEP is therefore unnecessary.

Were LLNL deprived of the IW-1 and the W80-4 LEP, that laboratory would lack any lead warhead mission. Only peer review of LANL work would remain.

Even with its current LEP missions, NNSA suffers from redundant, irresponsible nuclear physics laboratories. Staffing at Los Alamos and Livermore should be decreased dramatically, by about half as we discuss in our Comments to the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories (CRENEL) (Sep 26, 2014). Livermore (the town) might gain economically from a smaller lab and smaller security perimeter, with more light industry and commercial R&D on part of the former grounds.

NNSA should prioritize D&D of its excess facilities by transferring them to an appropriately-larger Environmental Management (EM) program. NNSA should also prioritize deferred maintenance in its existing facilities.

The Y-12 mission is thin. Y-12 should especially concentrate on D&D, decreasing footprint, security perimeter, its legacy pollution, and operating costs.

Pantex can step up dismantlement, keeping more or less the same workforce for now.

Assuming they are kept in the arsenal (and they should not be), there is no good reason to deploy nuclear gravity bombs in Europe, and many reasons not to -- starting with Incirlik.

Widening our view, we mortals must now consider all policy not only sub specie aeternitatis ("from the perspective of eternity") but also sub specie Terrae (from the perspective of Earth), because climate collapse (to pick one overarching environmental issue), if not rapidly halted and reversed, is certain to destroy the US, our children, and indeed the living world as we know it.

So our message to gradual reformers of all stripes is this: we are out of time.Our national security priorities should be far different than they are.

In the meantime and notwithstanding any other measures, we believe that a submarine-based monad could and should be provisionally adopted unilaterally right now, without any need for Russian (or any other state's) reciprocity. It is not at all too soon to begin discussing the nature of nuclear deterrence and related stockpile levels, and the actual consequences of nuclear war.

Within this provisional monad, we think a smaller Columbia-class fleet would also be a good idea, with delayed acquisition of the first boat. Each year of delay amounts to one less submarine, meaning that maintaining a minimum deterrent of the kind the UK has today would allow a roughly two decade long decision and diplomacy period before the first Columbia launch in the late 2030s.

In the meantime we think our new President should be encouraged to extend New START without entanglement in any other issue (e.g. Russian sanctions).

(Sanctions against Russia, begun in response to that country's modest life-saving reactions to the coup we sponsored in Ukraine, should be allowed to expire ASAP. Crimean self-determination, which is what we saw, can and should be viewed as fully compliant with the UN Charter. Kiev's current aggression against the breakaway Donbass region should be quenched; the efforts of senators McCain and Graham to re-start hostilities there have been, I believe, illegal under the Logan Act and are, again in our view, grossly immoral -- and dangerous to US security.)

I will be happy to discuss any of this with you, your bosses, or respond to your questions.

Best wishes,

Greg Mello

^ back to top

2901 Summit Place NE Albuquerque, NM 87106, Phone: 505-265-1200

home page calendar contact contribute