GAO report on NNSA’s dismantlement program

There are lots of interesting nuggets in the Government Accountability Office’s  recent dismantlement report. “Nuclear Weapons: Actions Needed by NNSA to Clarify Dismantlement Performance Goal,” April 2014, GAO-14-449,

Selected highlights below. Verbatim excerpts follow page numbers (add 5 for PDF page number). General points in italics are mine.

Republican presidents, not Dems, make significant stockpile cuts, and do so unilaterally.

1: …in September 1991, the President announced several unilateral initiatives to reduce the U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons arsenal. The following month, the Soviet President responded that the Soviet Union would reduce its nonstrategic nuclear weapons. In addition, as part of the annual presidential stockpile review process, in 2004, the President directed that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile be reduced by more than 40 percent by 2012 and, in 2007, he directed an additional reduction of the stockpile, making it roughly one-quarter the size of cold war-era levels.

Dismantlements resulting from New START are being held hostage to construction of the Uranium Processing Facility and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at LANL.

29: DOD officials told us that the retirement of additional weapons from the stockpile stemming from New START will be predicated on the successful restoration of the NNSA weapons production infrastructure, including the construction and operation of new NNSA facilities supporting nuclear weapons production—the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at LANL, and the Uranium Production Facility at Y-12—which they did not believe could be achieved until the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Pantex dismantlement workforce could be lost.

29: …this gap in dismantlement workload in the mid-2020s could result in the loss of certified dismantlement personnel because dismantlement technicians at Pantex lose their certifications if they have not worked on a weapon type within the past year. As a result, Pantex may need to retrain and recertify sufficient numbers of new dismantlement personnel in the late 2020s to resume dismantlement efforts to address retired weapons stemming from New START.

NNSA dismantlement rates have plummeted.

21: According to our analysis of dismantlement data, since the early 1990s, NNSA’s dismantlement rates have generally decreased, with NNSA dismantling about 1,000 fewer weapons annually in recent years than it was dismantling in the mid-1990s. In addition, in some years, only one or two types of retired war reserve weapons were dismantled.

NNSA dismantlement reporting is misleading.

23: How NNSA measures progress toward its performance goal of dismantling all weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009 by the end of fiscal year 2022 is unclear and may make its reported progress misleading, including its practice of not tracking the actual date of retirement of individual dismantled weapons and its plans to reinstate to the stockpile—rather than dismantle—certain weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009.

 Nine percent of “retired” nuclear weapons may go back to the active stockpile.

25: …how NNSA measures progress toward its dismantlement performance goal is also unclear and may be misleading because some weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009 are reinstated to the stockpile rather than dismantled. Specifically, in our analysis of NNSA’s dismantlement schedule as of March 2013 for weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009, we found that approximately 9 percent of the weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009 are scheduled to be reinstated during fiscal year 2013 through fiscal year 2022 or later.

Long retired weapons may come back to active stockpile.

27: The W84-0s and W80-1s currently in managed retirement may not be available to NNSA for dismantlement prior to fiscal year 2022 because both of these systems are being held in managed retirement as candidates for potential reuse as the warhead on a future long-range standoff missile to replace the Air Force’s current ALCM.

Contrary to NNSA claims Life Extension Programs will not decrease total stockpile size, especially when coupled with slower dismantlement rates.

28: As a hedge against technical problems in the life extension program process and in the refurbished warheads, however, the W76-0s are to remain in managed retirement and be unavailable for dismantlement until the life extension program processes and W76-1 unit reliability are “satisfactorily established,” …creating uncertainty as to whether the W76-0s in managed retirement will be released to NNSA in time for dismantlement by the end of fiscal year 2022.

Inconsistent W76-1 production.

28: These officials stated that it would be difficult to predict the completion of the W76-1 life extension program given inconsistent production, and that it was impossible to say whether the W76-0s in managed retirement could be released for dismantlement prior to fiscal year 2019 without additional confidence in NNSA’s production capability.

New START does not change total stockpile numbers, and as previously stated retired weapons can be pulled back to the active stockpile.

29: DOD officials said that the United States will meet the New START ceiling—1,550 operationally deployed nuclear weapons—to be in force by 2018 by transitioning currently deployed nuclear weapons to nondeployed “hedge” status without any significant change in the total stockpile size.

Interesting allusion to the Navy’s lack of support for the interoperable warhead, which could doom it for good.

32: …potential loss of military interest in a future planned common, or interoperable, warhead to replace the W78 and W88

GAO quotes NNSA estimated amounts for accelerated dismantlements, which might be handy for advocacy purposes. However, perhaps as a matter of its timing, the report fails to note the Obama Administration’s proposed 45% cut for dismantlement funding in FY 2015. Separately, the FY 2015 NNSA Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan states that dismantlements are only 1% of funding for Direct Stockpile Work.

33: NNSA estimated at the time that approximately $212 million in additional funding on top of the projected baseline budgets… would be needed to achieve the fiscal year 2018 dismantlement scenario. Alternatively, NNSA estimated that $265 million in additional funding on top of the projected baseline budgets… would be needed to achieve the fiscal year 2020 scenario.

 Dismantlements save money!

35: According to Navy officials we interviewed, accelerating dismantlement of retired W76-0 warheads allowed the Navy to avoid constructing new weapon storage facilities, saving the Navy approximately $190 million in estimated construction costs.

41: NNSA is retaining two types of CSAs [Canned Subassemblies, AKA secondaries] as options for reuse in a potential future W78 warhead refurbishment… In addition, NNSA is also retaining four types of CSAs as options for reuse in a warhead on the Air Force’s planned long-range standoff missile… NNSA officials told us that CSAs associated with a certain warhead indicated as excess in the 2012 Production and Planning Directive are being retained in an indeterminate state pending a senior-level government evaluation of their use in planetary defense against earthbound asteroids… the national labs’ retention letter has also characterized the CSA associated with this warhead as an “irreplaceable national asset.”

42: Y-12 is projected to disassemble far fewer CSAs than in NNSA’s 2009 Production and Planning Directive.

45: As of May 2013, Pantex was storing 3 million mark quality nonnuclear components as a contingency inventory for potential reuse in maintaining active stockpile or refurbished weapons.

49: Pantex site contractors told us that some of these boxes may contain parts that are up to 60 years old and that may be radiologically contaminated, which makes them difficult to handle and identify.

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