US nuclear agency misses schedule, cost estimates

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – The U.S. agency responsible for starting production of key components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal is failing to have a comprehensive timeline for the multibillion-dollar project.

The Government Accountability Office said in a new report that the National Nuclear Security Administration’s plans to restore plutonium mine production fall short of best practice and risk delays and cost overruns.

nuclear weapons production

This November 20, 2013 photo, seen through thick protective glass, shows the area where workers sandblast the large stainless steel tanks used in the vitrification process to rid them of contaminants at the Defense Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River site nearby von Aiken, SC

Stephen B. Morton, Associated Press

The federal government has not produced plutonium cores on a regular basis in more than 30 years and is facing a congressional deadline to produce at least 80 a year by 2030.

GAO describes the modernization effort as the agency’s largest investment in weapons manufacturing infrastructure to date, noting that plutonium is a hazardous material and manufacturing the weapons cores is difficult and time-consuming.

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“The NNSA lacks both a comprehensive cost estimate and a timeline outlining all of the activities required to achieve this capability,” the reports said.

Nuclear watchdog groups have raised similar concerns since the federal government first announced plans to resume production in 2018 by splitting work between Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River site in South Carolina.

At stake are billions in funding to improve the infrastructure at the two locations and thousands of jobs.

Democratic members of the New Mexico congressional delegation have campaigned to have Los Alamos — a once-secret city that helped develop the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project — be among the benefactors of the lucrative mission.

nuclear weapons production

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, NM

The Albuquerque Journal via AP

Using documents prepared by the nuclear agency to justify its fiscal 2023 budget, GAO identified potential costs of at least $18 billion to $24 billion to build production capacity.

However, GAO, other independent analysts, and US Department of Defense officials have all testified in recent years that the NNSA would miss the 2030 deadline, no matter how much money was allocated to the project.

The NNSA said in a statement Thursday that it agrees with GAO’s recommendations and that some work is underway to implement best practices.

“Both the life cycle cost estimation data and (integrated master plan) will be updated as necessary to reflect the most current information as projects and program work progresses,” the agency said.

More specifically, in a letter to GAO, the agency said it plans to complete the cost estimate for the overall project by September 2025, and that the schedule will “continue to mature over time.”

Greg Mello, director of the Watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said Thursday that the lack of a comprehensive timeline or cost estimate means the NNSA doesn’t know what it’s doing and has little chance of success.

“How can NNSA produce the required number of pits on schedule or budget when NNSA is not on schedule or budget?” he asked. “These are elementary, normal parts of any program or project. After more than two decades of preparation, NNSA doesn’t have them.”

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, pointed out that some of the price tags associated with the project have doubled over the past four years. He said production at the two sites could total at least $60 billion over 30 years, adding to that radioactive waste management and other environmental and health concerns.

Until Congress and the New Mexico delegation demand credible cost estimates and timelines, Coghlan said lawmakers “should stop rewarding the guilty with even more money.”

“This is simple good governance that could help slow our sleepwalk into the new and unpredictable nuclear arms race,” he said.

Mello agreed, saying the mission needs to be discussed widely in Congress, not just behind closed doors or by lawmakers sitting on defense committees.

In its report, GAO outlined the process of making plutonium mines along with a history of how and where the work was done during the Cold War. The long-shuttered Rocky Flats facility outside of Denver was capable of producing more than 1,000 war reserve pits annually before operations halted in 1989 due to environmental and regulatory concerns.

With a long history of leaks, fires, and other violations, Rocky Flats underwent a $7 billion cleanup that was completed in 2005.

During the Obama administration, a council of defense and energy officials told Congress that the nation needed to produce between 50 and 80 pits a year. Congress included a legal mandate for the production in a 2015 defense measure, which was subsequently approved and signed by the President.

This mandate was later amended to call for 80 pits by 2030. According to GAO, some of the construction projects and upgrades required for the work at Los Alamos will take several years to complete.