By John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
Maintaining old Cold War nukes has proven to be an expensive proposition.
They're fiddly, highly optimized feats of human engineering designed to pack the largest, deadliest wallop into the smallest possible package.
Taking care of them as they sit waiting to get the call does not come cheap.
So an idea hatched four years ago seemed to make a certain amount of sense.
Why not replace these Ferrari-like machines (weapons designers love their auto metaphors) with something more akin to a Volkswagen bug — less powerful, but much cheaper to build and maintain? With the Cold War over, federal officials reasoned, the need for massive blasts from the old Ferraris was gone.
Savings in maintaining fewer old Ferraris could make up for the cost of building the new VWs, they argued in trying to sell the program to Congress.
But while that public push was on, there were private fears that the cost-saving argument was being oversold, according to documents obtained by the Journal under the Freedom of Information Act.
The formerly classified documents, released earlier this month, date to 2005. Such is the effectiveness of the federal law that receiving a FOIA response in the mail is more likely to trigger a history exercise than inform a current public policy debate.
In this case, the Reliable Replacement Warhead is dead, pushed to near extinction by Congress and then killed off by the Obama administration. But the history exercise is nevertheless useful, offering yet another example of the trajectory that spending on U.S. nuclear weapons work often follows.
The documents outline discussions among members of the Reliable Replacement Warhead Project Officers Group, a task force of military officers, nuclear weapons designers and others.
Minutes of the group's first meeting, on May 11, 2005, note that someone (the name is deleted) "expressed some concerns that NNSA is building unreasonable expectations in Congress that RRW will result in large, near-term budget savings for stockpile management and support."
The issue resurfaced at the Project Officers Group's second meeting a month later. An unnamed group member (the name again is deleted) warns against selling the program on the basis of short-term savings.
The program had barely begun. Funding in 2005, its first year in existence, was just $8.9 million, a barely noticeable blip in the federal spending that surrounds U.S. nuclear weapons.
It was clear from the start that that was not enough. "The present budget is a constraint when spread across the list of deliverables," an unnamed Los Alamos National Laboratory official wrote in a briefing delivered at the May 11 meeting.
Not to worry.
If you've been around the U.S. nuclear weapons program for any significant period of time, you know where this is headed.
In 2005, as the meetings were being held, the NNSA's estimated budget for the first five years of work on the new VW bug-like warhead was $77 million. Within two years, that had more than tripled, to $249 million.
Reduced costs in maintaining old weapons would be sufficient to pay for the new spending, the NNSA told Congress in spring 2007.
Congress said no to the new warhead in 2007. The Bush administration tried to revive it, but the Obama administration's nuclear weapons team seems bent on killing it for good.
That might make this whole discussion seem like an academic history exercise, were it not for the nuclear weapons program's long-standing tradition of programs that come in vastly over budget.
The National Ignition Facility, a laser fusion machine built for nuclear weapons research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, came with a $1 billion price tag when the project was begun in 1996. Its final price, if you count all its bells and whistles, is in the neighborhood of $5 billion.
At Los Alamos, the Dual-Axis Radiographic Test Facility came with a $30 million price tag when the project was launched in 1988. The machine, built to take three-dimensional X-rays of nuclear weapon parts, was redesigned in midstream, and its final cost grew to more than $300 million. It doesn't work yet.
That's history, but it is not irrelevant. Today, federal officials are considering building a new plutonium lab at Los Alamos. When the project was proposed in 2004, the price tag was estimated at $500 million. The latest estimate, with construction not yet under way, is $2 billion.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach John at 823-3916 or jfleck@ abqjournal.com. John also blogs on weather, science and other things at ABQjournal.com.