Jul 1, 2009

Nuke Budgets Have a Way of Growing

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.


Anonymous said...

A 10 x overrun in project cost seems to be the norm on many government sponsored projects. Just watch how some of the $800 billion in stimulus money is spent. US taxpayers will be lucky to see 10 cents of productive work out of each stimulus dollar that is spent.

Anonymous said...

NNSA under Tom D'Agostino did a piss-poor job of selling the RRW concept to both Congress and the public. Anyone surprised by this?

Anonymous said...

Screw the taxpayer. We need more millionaire's at the Lab.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to note how all the comments on a serious subject like nuclear weapons, which used to be the very life blood of the Lab, have detoured off into management problems and other petty issues. At one time, years ago, it you didn't blow shit up, or analyze blown shit data, or help in some way to accomplish getting a new weapon into the stockpile, you were shipped up to the Division Office to shuffle papers and act like a big shot. If you were really bad, you'd end up at the Ad Bldg! Seldom did we see these worthless outcasts at the real work sites, thank God!

Anonymous said...

These overruns are incredible, 400% for NIF and 900% for DARHT.

No doubt some of these overruns are not due to LLNL or LANL. Things such as extreme hsssles in the EIS that DARHT got hit with were part of the problem. BUT, by for not the reason for the majority of the problem.

The real issue here is the incentives. Remember, as soon as you finish the project, they stop giving you money. SO, LANL and LLNL judge the success of project managers by how much money is brought in, nother whether or not it gets done within budget and on schedule.

AND, if it doesn't work right, GREAT! Then you get more money to fix it.

Successful project managers such as DARHT's Mike Burns go off to their next promotion before it is found out that it the equipment does not work.

Anonymous said...

RRW had nothing to do with saving money; rather, the objective was to find money for Livermore.

Anonymous said...

“Maintaining old Cold War nukes has proven to be an expensive proposition.”

Oh, for crying out loud. Geeze John Flick, perhaps you haven’t noticed that our congress spills more than 10 times this every year on absolute worthless earmarks.

“Taking care of them as they sit waiting to get the call does not come cheap.”

And, while you write you great journalistic prose, these bad boy nukes have made it possible for you to spout your B.S. Would you feel better if we used a few nukes each year?

“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.”

Thank goodness, these documents weren’t produced by a bunch of so-called journalist.

John Flick, you’re a phony when you’re against nukes because of the cost. What about all the other worthless Government programs?

Anonymous said...

The millionaires are the Bechtel folks. Remember... they all get an automatic 5% in their pay just for coming here.

Anonymous said...

The total cost for DARHT is closer to $500million. More importantly, it is almost 20 years behind schedule and can no longer perform the mission for which it was intended. Fortunately, the LANS team has recently upped the shot rate to...zero shots per year in the last two years. Is it time yet for another round of phony awards and promotions? For those interested in a concrete (literally) example of what is wrong with LANS, they need look no further.

Anonymous said...

"Our Decaying Nuclear Deterrent" (Excerpts)

Wall Street Journal, June 30th 2009


A bipartisan congressional commission, headed by some of our most experienced national security practitioners, recently concluded that a nuclear deterrent is essential to our defense for the foreseeable future. It also recommended that urgent measures be taken to keep that deterrent safe and effective.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama has adopted an agenda that runs counter to the commission's recommendations.

...The commission (Perry-Schlesinger) also assessed the nuclear weapons infrastructure that is essential to a safe, secure and effective deterrent and declared it "in serious need of transformation."

It looked at our laboratory-based scientific and technical expertise and concluded that "the intellectual infrastructure" is in "serious trouble." A major cause is woefully inadequate funding. The commission rightly argued that we must "exercise the full range of laboratory skills, including nuclear weapon design skills . . . Skills that are not exercised will atrophy." The president and the Congress must heed these recommendations.

There are some who believe that failing to invest adequately in our nuclear deterrent will move us closer to a nuclear free world. In fact, blocking crucial modernization means unilateral disarmament by unilateral obsolescence. This unilateral disarmament will only encourage nuclear proliferation, since our allies will see the danger and our adversaries the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

7/1/09 7:44 PM

Oh for crying out loud, when are you people at Los Alamos going to realize that you did not create the world, you are not the saviors of the world and most scary you could destroy the world. I owe none of my rights to any of you unless you were boots on the ground in an actual war.

Anonymous said...

"It (Perry Commission) looked at our laboratory-based scientific and technical expertise and concluded that "the intellectual infrastructure" is in "serious trouble."" (WSJ Article)

Serious trouble? How can that be? NNSA, Mikey and Terry all say things are just fine. People like Perry and Schlesinger must be out-of-the-loop or perhaps they are lying.

Everything is running well at the nuclear weapons labs under NNSA's and Bechtel's leadership. The PBI metrics prove it!

Eric said...

7:44 PM

John Fleck is one of the good guys.

It is Fleck, not Flick.

Just for your reference.

Anonymous said...

Well, 10:23, many of us are, as you say, "boots on the ground" types. Shut up or pay up asshole.

Anonymous said...

Next week, July 6-8, 2009, Pres. Obama, and Pres. Medvedev will meet for the Moscow Summit, and US-Russia Nuclear Arms Reductions talks.

But, without any new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), respectively, the Obama administration lacks in strategic planning, as well in tactical planning of the US nuclear arsenal, both the strategic nukes, and the tactical nukes, e.g. their strategic, military, and political understanding of the US nuclear arsenal is unclear and hasty, and I see the following failures for the Obama administration after the Moscow Summit, as well as Pres. Obama sees the US nuclear arsenal as almost providing no national security, military, and/or political benefits, and he´s not prepared to use US nuclear force under almost any circumstance:

(1) A too deep cut of the US strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,000 deployed warheads, with the further risks of the breakdown of the classic nuclear triad, feeding the idea of zero nukes in the world, and its final goal of a global, e.g. US denuclearization, and the end of US as a superpower. (My remark: I strongly oppose this idea of "Zero nukes in the world," the deployed US strategic nuclear arsenal shouldn´t go below 2,000 warheads.)

(2) The tactical nukes will probably not be brought up by the Obama administration during the Moscow Summit, e.g. 10:1 in favor of Russia, whether it´s 10,000:1,000, or 4,000:400, et cetera, but Russia will most likely be the tactical nukes winner.

(3) Pres. Medvedev and Russia, aka Putin will force the Obama administration to link "success" in their strategic arms reductions talks with US and the Obama administration to force US into deep cuts of the US missile defense, e.g. to weaken US, and make her more defenseless of an attack from North Kora, Iran, as well as from Russia.

Anonymous said...

7:44 PM here…

You’re correct Eric – I agree John Fleck is one of the good guys.

When I first read his article I misunderstood his point/intent. I’ve since re-read it a couple more times and to John Fleck, I sincerely apologize. This often occurs when posting after I’ve progressed into the 2nd bottle of wine :(

Without a doubt,I agree NNSA has a terrible record for bringing major projects in on scope, cost or schedule.

Selling RRW/WR1 on the basis of reducing overall cost or maintaining a required reliability rating alone is a mistake imo. It’s about Nuclear Weapons Surety which includes safety, security, and control of nuclear weapons as well as reliability.

Failing to replace our older nuclear weapons such as the W76 with newer weapons that provide significantly improved safety & security is nothing short of absolute negligence.

As to whether new designs require underground nuclear tests, I’ll leave that to our finest weapons designers – not a bunch of dishonest politicians.

Once again, my sincere apology to John Fleck.

For the record, I’m not an employee of LANL.

Anonymous said...

7/2/09 7:29 PM
…I agree with your assessment, except I seriously don’t think “Pres. Medvedev and Russia, aka Putin will force the Obama administration…”

Obama is not being “forced” to make concessions – he’s doing so voluntarily to fulfill a campaign promise.

Anonymous said...

7/2/09 7:29 PM I want you to tell me why, then, when Regan wanted to dump all nukes ( rajkovic) it was some bold, diplomatic stroke of genius (which obviously failed) and today it is such folly?. I wait with bated breath.

Anonymous said...

7/2/09 7:29 PM you don't know what you are talking about. Get back to work and quit plagiarizing.

Anonymous said...

Obama is not being “forced” to make concessions – he’s doing so voluntarily to fulfill a campaign promise.

I don't recall a promise by Obama to reduce missile defense systems. can you point to an example? I think your making this stuff up.

Anonymous said...

I don't recall a promise by Obama to reduce missile defense systems. can you point to an example? I think your making this stuff up.
7/3/09 9:22 PM

Let Google help you out...there's simply too many links to post:

"President-elect Barack Obamam, during his campaign, pledged to cut “unproven missile defense” and never put weapons into space."

The truth of the matter is watch what Obama does - not what he says.

Anonymous said...

Obama's nuclear-weapons adviser delivers doomsday scenario

``We have the wind of Obama and Medvedev at our back,''

And it smells just like a big cheesy fart!


Anonymous said...

Over the next four years, Obama and his Democratic controlled Congress will see to it that every national lab in America has more science funding than ever before... except for the dieing NNSA nuclear weapons labs.

During the Bush years, LANL and LLNL were handed over to a highly dysfunctional NNSA bureaucracy and management by a sleazy, for-profit *CONSTRUCTION* company, Bechtel.

The Obama years will finish off these two labs as centers of scientific excellence. LANS is, in most respects, the official shut down crew. Nothing much can be done at this point to stop the process. 'Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

"President-elect Barack Obamam, during his campaign, pledged to cut “unproven missile defense” and never put weapons into space."

What is wrong with this promise, 6:25? Should we deploy non-working missile defenses? Should we militarize space, which would put us at a disadvantage since we currently own the most satellites? (i.e. we have the most to lose and the least to gain from anti-satellite weapons).

Think before you post.

Anonymous said...

Also, Obama is not trying to "fulfill a campaign promise" to work toward a nuclear-free world. This is a long-held belief of his.

See today's NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/world/05nuclear.html?hp

Anonymous said...

"I don't recall a promise by Obama to reduce missile defense systems."

Another B.S. artist.

Anonymous said...

What does it mean to cut "unproven" missile defense systems? That suggests you'd have to "prove" a missile defense system - presumably by successfully defending against a missile attack? - before you could deploy it.

Anonymous said...

7/4/09 3:45 PM A breath of fresh air. Proving that there is still somebody out there who is capable of rational thought. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"That suggests you'd have to "prove" a missile defense system - presumably by successfully defending against a missile attack? - before you could deploy it."

What? That is a strong contender for the dumbest comment on this blog, which is quite an accomplishment.

You prove a missile defense system by testing it extensively and honestly against missiles that you launch in a firing range against your defense system.

You do have to be honest in designing the test to mimic expected adversaries and the countermeasures they would be expected to use. It also would be useful to not have homing beacons in the missile to be shot down.

Anonymous said...

Not sure which thread to put this on, but the bikini, named after the nuclear test on Bikini Atoll, was introduced 63 years ago today.

Anonymous said...

7/5/09 1:11 PM

Huh? Remember Regan's missile defense system which relied on a fleet of x-ray lasers powered by a nuclear detonation orbiting geosynchronously which could knock out multiple war heads in one shot? After Bush took office it was killed. Why? Other than violating the 1967 treaty banning nuclear weapons in space (which some would argue doesn't apply), it would never have worked, that's why. According to your logic we should have deployed it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Ronald Reagan's strategic defense initiative pushed Soviet leaders into desperate measures that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Anonymous said...

no, cheap oil from saudi arabia caused the bankruptcy of the ussr

Anonymous said...

MOSCOW (AP) July 6, 2009 - President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a preliminary agreement Monday to reduce the world's two largest nuclear stockpiles by as much as a third, down to the lowest levels of any U.S.-Russia accord, and counter what Obama called "a sense of drift" in the countries' relations.


Meanwhile, back at NNSA, the achievement of even greater than 1/3rd reductions in the number of bright scientists at the nuclear weapons research labs has already been achieved.

NNSA is now proceeding on a bold, new plan to make their once famous research labs totally ineffective by 2010. Bechtel has informed NNSA that they can get the job done through a policy of higher lab overhead, more crazy policies and an bigger influx of poorly educated but highly paid Bechtel managers to run both LANL and LLNL into the ground.

Anonymous said...

7/5/09 1:11 PM here. I agree, my comment was poorly phrased. So:

Obama's budget cuts missile defense systems dramatically. Some of the proposed cuts are to already-deployed systems. Other cuts are against deployment of new systems that have already been developed. So it's not clear to me that these systems can be called "unproven" except in the sense that they have never been used to defend against an actual missile attack by a foreign adversary.

Airborne Laser? Okay, it's not fully proven yet, and how can you ever get to fully proven if you abort the program now? That's like saying "We're going to cut funding for all Phase 1 clinical trials of drugs that have not been proven to be safe and effective in humans."

7/6/09 7:43 AM, The Reagan era x-ray laser systems are a red herring here (very Obama-esque of you!), as nobody is proposing to spend money on them in FY10.

Anonymous said...

John should explore the overruns that are in the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility at Savannah River. From $800M to now over $6500M.

It can be done cheaper elsewhere!