Task Force Outlines Steps to Consolidate Nuclear Weapons Complex

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Publication date: 
30 August 2005

Since the end of the Cold War there has been continuing discussion about whether structural changes in the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons complex are indicated. Later this year, the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board will consider a report recommending dramatic changes in the weapons complex. Comments will be solicited on the report before this meeting. Any changes that might occur will probably not begin until at least a year from now because of report language which Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) has proposed that would accompany the FY 2006 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill.

"Recommendations for the Nuclear Weapons Complex of the Future," a draft final report of the Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure Task Force, was released last month. The six-member Task Force was chaired by David Overskei of Decision Factors, Inc. The main body of the report is 36 pages long, supplemented by 14 appendices. The report can be read at http://www.seab.energy.gov/publications/NWCITFRept-7-11-05.pdf. It was produced in response to a March 2004 request of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water.

The final paragraph of the main body of the report neatly summarizes the Task Force's recommendations: "The status quo is neither technically credible, nor financially sustainable. Some action must be taken. The Task Force has proposed a path, which is very credible, but will require leadership and crisp decisions and must be molded to meet political and financial realities. The transformation should begin now."

The Task Force makes four major recommendations:

1. "Immediate Design of a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW)." The resulting family of weapons would replace the current stockpile.

2. "Consolidated Nuclear Production Center (CNPC)." The report states: "The Task Force recommends that the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] immediately begin site selection processes for building a modern set of production facilities with 21st century cutting-edge nuclear component production, manufacturing, and assembly technologies, all at one location. This action will establish a cost effective modern production center that can achieve minimum production rates required by the DoD to be responsive and meet evolving nuclear weapon needs of the 21st century. When operational, the CNPC will produce and dismantle all RRW weapons."

3. "Consolidation of Special Nuclear Materials (SNM)." The Task Force recommends that this material be consolidated by 2030 to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and limit terrorist targets.

4. "Dismantlement as part of deterrence." "To demonstrate that the U.S. is committed to arms reduction, the Task Force recommends that Pantex [Texas] focus on the aggressive dismantlement of the Cold War stockpile, while the Complex begins replacing the Cold War stockpile with the sustainable stockpile of the future."

The Task Force estimates that there will be "substantial" near-term cost increases for the recommended Complex and accelerated dismantlement, but that long-term cost savings – over the next 25 years – will be twice the level of the near-term cost increases.

While the report focused on the manufacture of nuclear weapons, it also offered observations on the laboratories, which it called "national assets." Among these findings are the following:

"The three design laboratories, consumers of approximately 2/3 of the nuclear weapons budget, routinely compete with each other and set their own requirements as justification for new facilities and redundant research funding in the fear that one laboratory may become superior. The net result is that the Complex sites are competing for programmatic funds and priorities rather than relying upon their divergent and complementary strengths and thereby operating as a truly interdependent team, with shared success and rewards."

The report also stated: "Three design laboratories are currently needed to certify the RRW series without UGT [underground testing]. However, the long-term requirement for two physics design laboratories will be determined through overall Complex performance and needs. Continuous design activities and advances in simulation and non-nuclear testing capabilities will require fewer nuclear weapons professionals at the design laboratories in the future. In preparation for these design activities, the design laboratories should refocus on the research that is critical to national security and cannot be obtained from industry, leaving production and manufacturing to the commercial industry or production arms of the Complex."

The report later devotes almost four pages to "Defense Missions and Facility Consolidation at the Design Laboratories (LANL, LLNL, SNL)" which can be found on pages 19-23. These unique assets should be operated, the Task Force recommended, as "User Facilities." The Task Force found that "a number of the redundant facilities could be shut down, some almost immediately, thus reducing operating costs." Among the topics covered in this section are computing facilities, high energy density facilities, high-explosive R&D facilities, hydrodynamic testing facilities, plutonium and highly enriched uranium R&D facilities, non-nuclear component production, and human capital.

Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, was quick to issue a statement upon the release of the Task Force report. Domenici stated: "It is apparent that a lot of work and effort went into this report, and I want to take the time to review its findings and recommendations. While there is always room for improvement, I believe our labs are doing good work and I do not think we should rush into any quick fixes. I trust that some of the recommendations in this report will provide guidance and assistance to the NNSA and our national laboratories as they continue to provide the world-class science we require to maintain the security, safety and reliability of our nuclear deterrent." The statement also explained that Domenici included report language in the Senate version of the FY 2006 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill that, if adopted by the House-Senate conferees, would forestall any action being taken on the Task Force's recommendations before October 1, 2006. This language can be read at http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/099.html under Nuclear Weapons Complex Wide Review.

Readers interested in commenting upon the Task Force report should monitor the following Department of Energy site for information on how to do so: