Jun 3, 2009

Senate Measure Would Withhold Funds for Planned Shift of Nuclear Component Work

By Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire

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."


Anonymous said...

This whole debacle illustrates just how broken and disfunctional and the nuclear weapons program and associated management structure is. The time and effort that NNSA Management / LANS Management / LLNS Management/ Sandia Management / OMB / Congress / Senate spent on this issue easily exceeded the budget allocated to the GTS programs at the Labs this past fiscal year. What an absolute waste of our money.

Anonymous said...

This seems like quite a bit of micro-management!

Anonymous said...

Here is an intersting article posted on the front page of Yahoo:

"US nuclear workers happiest federal employees: poll"


Anonymous said...

Well, all that I can say is that using LANL as a basis, there must be some seriously unhappy mother fuckers elsewhere out there!

Frank Young said...

By "nuclear workers" they mean NRC employees.


Anonymous said...

1:50, the total is still probably less than what Wallace/Sarrao and co-conspirators have wasted on MaRiE.

NNSA needs to be taken to the woodshed once in a while for its brainless and damaging decisions.

Anonymous said...

By "workers" they mean about any other place than LANL. LANS and NNSA have achieved Nanos' dream of the perfect work-free safety zone.

AND, we wear shoes that GRIP!

Anonymous said...

"Comedy tonight" Zero Mostel, 'The producers'

Anonymous said...

The current complex transformation plan has nothing to do with saving money; rather, the main focus is to justify the existence of Livermore. NNSA wants to convert LANL into a pit and high-explosives lab, while making Livermore the weapon science lab. For example, NNSA ordered the GTS research area to be sent to Livermore, which has not designed a GTS system in well over a decade and their last attempt was a failure. Indeed Robert Smolen, "Cost is not a driving factor in making it either move or not move." Furthermore, when President Obama fired Smolen, Livermore/NNSA gave him a plush job for his faithfulness to the nefarious NNSA agenda. I am thankful that some Senators are willing to challenge NNSA/Livermore, and I hope President Obama puts an end to the destructive NNSA agenda.

Anonymous said...

6:24 PM, people had great hopes for Sarrao when he took on his BES position but he turned into a hopeless politcal ladder wench and has screwed over more people to get to where he is thann one can count on both hands and toes. He thinks - and his wife Margie is quite fond of telling anyone who will listenn - that he/John will be the next Lab Director.

John vs. Terry ... thoughts?

Anonymous said...

"AND, we wear shoes that GRIP!

6/3/09 7:07 PM"

It is June and some of those signs about wearing shoes that grip are still up!

Come on think of something new LANS. How about sunburn?

"Do not burn, get suntan lotion and learn!"


"Do not get hit by lightning, the loss to our bonus would be frightening!"

Anonymous said...

"It is June and some of those signs about wearing shoes that grip are still up!" - 10:39 PM

OK, how about...

Don't get the clap,
wear condoms when doing THAT!

Anonymous said...

Or how about...

PBIs, Baby, it's what we do,
Mikey's bonus is depending on YOU!

Anonymous said...

Let me guess. First, Bret Knapp is involved. Second, the program is now going to Livermore for no reason or the program is dead, or both. The pattern is a familiar one.

Anonymous said...

With all the recent exodus of LANS executives, it make me wonder how much longer until Mikey finally decides to head back to Livermore. I'm sure he'll be well rewarded for his "work" here at LANL.

Anonymous said...

Well, yeah, he will be rewarded handsomely for taking our Laboratory out. Mikey lacks every quality in the sprectrum of leadership...how did this happen?

Anonymous said...

If you have not heard this is the best news in at least a year - wolfgang runde & mary neu being investigated for travel "inconsistencies" Maybe that meant they forgot to sign the form or maybe it means their travel was reviewed and questioned or maybe it is smokes and mirrors.

Anonymous said...

If you have not heard this is the best news in at least a year - "wolfgang runde & mary neu being investigated for travel "inconsistencies" Maybe that meant they forgot to sign the form or maybe it means their travel was reviewed and questioned or maybe it is smokes and mirrors.

6/5/09 7:17 PM"

Sounds like bs.

Anonymous said...

It's the summer travel season. I'll bet that Mary and Wolfgang already have their LANL travel plans in place for a nice trip to Paris at LANL's expense.

Anonymous said...

GTS was going to Sandia Livermore, not LLNL. Also the relationship between SNL/CA and LLNL is not as close/friendly as some think.

Anonymous said...

There are also travel inconsistencies under investigation in ADTR and IP.

Anonymous said...

Wolfgang and Mary are also being investigated for using a Los Alamos address to get their kids in school here before they actually moved to Los Alamos. Normally I would think the travel and the school investigations were petty but I can't think of two more deserving individuals than these 2. Anyone check their DMV records?

Anonymous said...

Wolfgang and Mary lived in Jacona for a long time. They rented an apartment in LA (on Oppenheimer, I believe) once their oldest child was school age, so that they could claim an LA address and have their daughter attend LA schools. They have since moved to LA.

Frank Young said...

Lots of people have two addresses at some point in their life. As long as they owned or were renting the Los Alamos address they used then, in my opinion, they didn't do anything wrong.

Anonymous said...

I know in the last several years, LA schools stopped accepting any new out-of-county students. Prior to this, anyone who worked at LANL was eligible to enroll their child(en) in the LA public school system.

If Runde and Neu enrolled their children prior to this ban, then it was their right as LANL employees, regardless if they lived in Jacona. I know both kids attended preschool in LA and that was many years ago.

They own a big home in Los Alamos and are contributing to the local economy, paying property taxes etc.
More than I can say about other high-level LANL managers.

I'm not a fan of either but in this case, who gives a sh!t.

Anonymous said...

Let the tritium work go to Savannah River...after all, that is where the tritium is! Just have all of the plutonium work currently performed, or planned to be performed move west to Los Alamos, that shining jewel and center of plutonium excellence.

Anonymous said...

This is Margie Sarrao (and I'm not to embarrassed to say so). I've NEVER told anyone that John will be the next lab director. It may have come up as a joke in a conversation sometime, but not out of my mouth. John and I have never even discussed this. I'm not sure this the path we would choose.