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LANL revenues uncertain as nuclear stockpile costs rise

LANL nuclear program revenues

Fiscal year 2011: $1.56 million

Total budget: $2.55 billion

Fiscal year 2012: $1.44 billion

Total budget: $2.17 billion

Fiscal year 2013: $1.45 billion

Total budget: $2.09 billion

Fiscal year 2014: still undetermined

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2014 8:00 pm |
Updated: 6:10 pm, Mon Jan 13, 2014.

By Staci Matlock
The New Mexican

The costs of maintaining and modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapons are spiraling upward, setting taxpayers up for sticker shock in the next decade, according to recent reports and nuclear watchdog groups.

The staggering costs — more than $350 billion over the next 10 years, according to one federal agency — already have been a source of tension between federal lawmakers and the White House as they prepare for a defense spending package and the omnibus budget. The final budget is due out soon.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of nuclear weapons, depends heavily on funding for the nuclear stockpile and is impacted by any cuts. More than half of the lab’s revenues come from federal funding to keep the plutonium pits used in warheads safe and secure, produce new pits and help redesign warheads.

A report last month by the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost to maintain and modernize the nuclear stockpile at $355 billion by 2023. A separate report this month by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury College goes further, putting the costs at more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years. That doesn’t include costs for cleaning up legacy waste from past nuclear weapons development, dismantling nuclear warheads or paying the pensions and health care of people working in the programs.

Both anti-nuclear activists and those who support a strong nuclear deterrent program think there needs to be better cost accounting for policymakers to decide which programs to fund in the decades ahead.

Advocates for the nuclear stockpile projects, like the National Nuclear Security Administration, say they are needed to keep the nuclear arsenal in fighting shape and deter attacks on the United States and its allies.

Critics say the agency and Congress must take a harder look at the need for some of those projects and their costs.

Eight facilities make up the United States’ nuclear weapons complex, including LANL and Sandia National Laboratories. Together, the facilities oversee maintenance of existing nuclear warheads, replacing parts as needed, designing new systems and testing them. Funding for the facilities and nuclear projects comes from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Defense.

The United States government is determined to maintain and improve its nuclear triad, which consists of bombers carrying ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines, according to the Congressional Budget Office report and the White House Nuclear Posture Review from 2010.

But the stockpile program has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as cost overruns on nuclear stockpile programs and security breaches have plagued some of the facilities, including LANL.

A $213 million project to improve security around the lab’s plutonium facility at Technical Area-55 was delayed a year and cost an additional $41 million due to poor construction and management problems. A multimillion-dollar plan to increase production of plutonium pits at the lab has stalled.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report in the fall found 10 major projects were $16 billion over budget and a combined 38 years behind schedule. Other projects already in the works were canceled because they were too expensive.

Meanwhile, the lab has grappled with reduced revenues of $457 million in the last two years. Only the revenues for nuclear programs increased. To deal with the budget decrease, the lab has reduced staff by more than 1,300 employees through layoffs or attrition, including contractors and career staff.

The Congressional Budget Office released a report in late December projecting the costs of the U.S. nuclear forces from 2014 to 2023 at an estimated $355 billion.

Line by line, the Congressional Budget Office staff combed through the long-term budgets of the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, looking at the costs associated with nuclear programs. The analysis only included the costs of maintaining and modernizing the nuclear weapons that can be launched from air, land and sea. The agency also looked at the probable unbudgeted costs for the programs based on the historical overruns.

Those costs don’t include another $215 billion to clean up the legacy radioactive waste from past nuclear activities, defense missile programs, threat reduction and arms control. More than $74 billion of that is estimated for cleanup efforts alone, like those occurring at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Nuclear watchdog groups such as the Los Alamos Study Group, which usually find such reports lacking, applauded this one.

“This report is by far the best and most authoritative on nuclear weapons costs over the coming decade,” said Greg Mello, co-founder of the Los Alamos Study Group. “Until now, these huge costs have been carefully shielded from the public eye. CBO uses past cost overruns to guide their estimates, but we believe the data show cost overruns are increasing — as are project cancellations. The long and short of it is that these modernizations will not all take place.”

A lot of the money after this year will be spent on “modernizing” the nuclear arsenal, a move that some New Mexico nuclear advocates say is unnecessary. Moreover, Mello said, “vast streams of money go to the weapons programs,” and few people really understand the total costs.

Authors of this month’s Trillion Dollar Nuclear Triad report from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury College say it unveils the true future costs of the nuclear programs, which a nation struggling with a budget deficit can ill afford.

“The United States plans, from 2024-29, to build five strategic submarines, 72 strategic bombers and 240 intercontinental ballistic missiles,” said the center’s deputy director, Jon Wolfsthal. “This represents more delivery vehicles than the combined nuclear forces of China, the United Kingdom and France.”

Wolfsthal supports nuclear weapons as a deterrent, but he said lawmakers need to understand the costs better. Redesigning and testing nuclear weapons takes well over a decade, and those costs are hard to capture. “I’m not a critic of appropriate spending,” he said. “But today’s Congress is assigning a mortgage for the U.S. taxpayer in 20 to 30 years.”

When the bill comes due in 2024 and beyond, taxpayers could feel the same dismay as a homeowner suddenly faced with a balloon payment.

The report recommends that Congress require the Department of Defense to craft an annual estimate of the lifetime costs for maintaining and replacing nuclear weapons systems.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.


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