Jun 3, 2009
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate has moved to at least temporarily ban a reassignment in design work on a key nuclear warhead component -- the tritium gas system -- from one national laboratory to another (see GSN, March 27).
(Jun. 3) - The U.S. Senate last month moved to delay a plan to transfer work on a crucial component used in nuclear weapons like the B-61 gravity bomb, shown above (U.S. Air Force photo).
The new legislative action came in the form of an amendment to the fiscal 2009 Supplemental Appropriations Bill, offered by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and adopted by the chamber on May 19. The Senate passed the full supplemental appropriations measure two days later.
The legislation would put the brakes on a National Nuclear Security Administration determination that the Bush administration announced on Jan. 5. The decision was to consolidate responsibility for designing tritium "gas transfer systems" from the two organizations currently performing the work -- the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories -- down to a single site, Sandia's facility in Livermore, Calif.
Under the legislation, no NNSA funds could be spent to consolidate these activities, pending further study.
The nuclear warhead component under discussion moves tritium from container bottles into the core of the nuclear warhead as the weapon explodes, boosting its destructive power, according to an NNSA statement.
The decision has proven controversial. Critics have asserted that consolidation could heighten the risk of nuclear warhead malfunctions by reassigning crucial work away from the most knowledgeable experts on Los Alamos-designed warheads, who reside at the New Mexico facility.
These design activities are ongoing in government efforts to keep the nuclear arsenal safe, secure and reliable, according to experts. As part of the "Stockpile Stewardship Program," funded at $5.1 billion this fiscal year, design work on the tritium system is performed to help maintain, repair and replace components.
These efforts comprise just one facet of refurbishment aimed at extending a warhead's service life in the absence of underground explosive testing.
Detractors also say the planned shift would offer a negligible reduction in the costs of maintaining the arsenal. Under the consolidation plan, tritium research and development activities would cost an estimated $415 million over 20 years, according to an independent report commissioned last year by the National Nuclear Security Administration before the decision was announced.
Alternative scenarios for which laboratories would conduct the work were estimated to carry a similar price tag, leaving NNSA leaders to conclude that "cost is kind of a wash," according to Robert Smolen, who announced the decision in January when he was NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs. "Cost is not a driving factor in making it either move or not move."
Smolen has since left the nuclear agency to become a senior national security fellow at Lawrence Livermore's Center for Global Security Research.
NNSA leaders have described the planned gas transfer system design consolidation as part of a larger effort to downsize, streamline and focus activities across the nuclear enterprise.
"The decision is to move forward with moving our enterprise to be smaller, less expensive, safe and reliable," NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino told Global Security Newswire in an April 30 interview. "It's consistent with the idea that we would not have multiple ... levels of redundancy. And whenever you start taking away a level of redundancy, you introduce some risk."
"At the same time," he added, "the risk is evaluated and you make a decision: What makes more sense?"
The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department, was established in 2000 to oversee the national laboratories and other facilities in the nuclear weapons complex.
The Senate did not explain in its legislation why it seeks to stall, and perhaps ultimately torpedo, the NNSA move. Congressional aides similarly offered no additional details.
However, according to the Senate measure, no funds from the supplemental legislation -- nor from any earlier appropriations -- may be used to relocate gas transfer system design authority or research and development on tritium, pending the completion of an independent assessment.
That assessment would be a "technical mission review and cost analysis" of the gas transfer system decision. It would be part of a broader scrub the JASON scientific panel is expected to perform on "Complex Transformation," the NNSA initiative aimed at consolidating nuclear enterprise operations and facilities to achieve greater efficiency and cost savings.
The JASON council advises the U.S. government on science and technology issues. The panel typically performs most of its work during a "summer study" undertaken from July through November.
However, if the legislation becomes law, it is unclear whether there would be enough advance notice to add a new assignment on the gas transfer system to the group's upcoming summer study, which begins next month, sources said.
The independent report commissioned last year -- undertaken by a Los Alamos, N.M.-based consulting firm called TechSource -- cast doubt on any benefits to be gained from the proposed consolidation of tritium system design operations. However, NNSA leaders said this view was offset by other analyses supporting the shift in responsibility.
The House passed its own version of the supplemental bill May 14 without any language addressing the warhead component work.
Representatives of each chamber are expected to meet in a conference committee as early as tomorrow to iron out differences between their versions of the appropriations measure, according to Capitol Hill staffers.
Advance work being done this week by Senate and House aides to reconcile the two versions of the bill might result in any number of different outcomes for the gas transfer system provision. A conference bill could appear as early as tomorrow evening, staffers said.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration might itself opt to reconsider the NNSA decision in the course of its Nuclear Posture Review, a broad assessment of U.S. nuclear strategy and associated policies, operations and hardware. The review is ongoing and expected to conclude by the end of the year.
Though the gas transfer system design and tritium research and development constitute relatively small programs, there might be some interest in revisiting a controversial decision made during the final days of the Bush administration, according to nuclear weapon experts.
Given that TechSource found that gas transfer system work is "too important to NNSA and DOD operations and too successful to change without identifying substantive programmatic or economic benefits," a "JASONs review [of] the GTS decision could provide the additional data NNSA appears to need to rescind the action of the previous administration," said one nuclear policy expert who asked not to be identified.
NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera rejected such thinking, even as he left the door open to taking a new approach regarding the tritium responsibilities.
"It has nothing to do with reversing decisions or not reversing decisions," he said during the April interview. "It's that once the Nuclear Posture Review is done, we're going to be making the decisions about the requirements of the ... enterprise based on what the requirements of the president are."
The gas transfer move was also notable for being among the first specific actions the nuclear agency announced it would take to implement the Complex Transformation plan, leaving critics questioning why other initiatives that offer greater cost savings or lower risk might not be implemented first.
"A lot of the major infrastructure decisions that we'll be looking at, in essence, depend on the outcome of that Nuclear Posture Review," D'Agostino said.
"Today it's a done deal," he said, referring to the gas transfer system decision. "But can I predict that the NPR won't change that? No, I can't. Because we need to be flexible enough to adapt the program to where the country thinks it's going."