Billions more needed to refurbish B61 nuclear bombs
By JOHN FLECK | Albuquerque Journal, N.M. | Published: November 4, 2012
The National Nuclear Security Administration, already under fire for billions of dollars of cost overruns, has underestimated by billions more how much it will cost to refurbish the nation’s stockpile of B61 nuclear bombs, according to an independent cost assessment commissioned by the agency.
Already juggling its budget to cope with existing problems, the agency will likely need to come up with another $1 billion per year for the next few years if the project is to go ahead as currently envisioned, according to a summary of the assessment obtained by the Journal .
Among the biggest shortcomings is a signif icant underestimate of the amount of systems engineering work to be done at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.
According to the independent assessment done by the Pentagon, NNSA has failed to explain how it will handle the need for additional staff to carry out the highly skilled work needed to redesign and build the refurbished bomb.
Sandia has estimated it will need more than 600 people working on the project by 2014, but the independent assessment says that number probably is too low.
In 2010, the agency estimated it would cost $3.9 billion to refurbish the bombs, built to be carried aboard U.S. aircraft to counter Russia’s military arsenal. Since then, the agency has repeatedly refused to release a new project cost amid reports that its internal estimates have soared.
According to the project assessment, the NNSA’s internal agency bottom line for the project in July had risen to $6.8 billion.
But the Pentagon cost assessment team brought in to provide a second opinion criticized that number as far too low, concluding it is likely to cost $10.4 billion and take three years longer than the NNSA’s current planning estimate.
Critics say a big part of the cost is an overly ambitious refurbishment project, which involves redesigning and manufacturing nearly all the components inside the bombs. Official numbers are classified, but nongovernment experts estimate there are 400 B61 bombs that require refurbishment.
The 29 major components included in the project represent essentially throwing out nearly all of the old bombs and for all practical purposes building new ones from scratch, said Bob Peurifoy, a retired Sandia labs vice president. Peurifoy said there is no evidence such wholesale remanufacturing is needed, and that the project could likely be done for far less.
The independent assessment team from the Department of Defense didn’t review whether the planned changes are needed, focusing instead on the cost of doing the project as currently envisioned by the NNSA.
The team criticized NNSA’s cost estimates as too optimistic and challenged the project schedule, given the agency’s history of performance on similar projects in the past.
The independent assessment also concluded that NNSA’s own cost estimates lack the necessary “detailed technical and programmatic definition” to realistically estimate the project cost and schedule — even though $300 million has already been spent on the project.
The independent cost assessment was conducted by the Defense Department’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation team, also known as CAPE.
”We’ve worked with CAPE to study how we meet the requirements for the B61 while ensuring that we’re being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars,” NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha said in a statement to the Journal . “We’re currently doing the required engineering and design work on the B61 which will allow us to make key decisions that we can then use to inform a wellresearched and validated cost baseline. All of the information we’ve gathered, including the CAPE study, will help us check any final conclusions against a long list of variables so that we’re certain we have a cost baseline that is as accurate as possible.”
The B61’s cost and schedule problems compound increasing difficulties the agency faces as a result of repeated instances of similar problems on other major nuclear weapons projects.
In February, the agency was forced to indefinitely defer work on a new plutonium laboratory after its estimated cost ballooned from $800 million in 2007 to an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion, too much for the agency’s budget.
Last month, agency officials acknowledged they had to redesign a similar multi-billion dollar building they are trying to build to do nuclear weapons work in Tennessee after realizing the current design is too small to hold the equipment needed.
Also last month, the agency acknowledged that a new $213 million security system at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s most sensitive nuclear facility did not work, forcing the lab to spend significant extra money to add the necessary guards to keep a major stockpile of nuclear weapons-usable plutonium safe while the agency figures out how to finish the project.
In September, the agency acknowledged that the $5 billion National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, built for $5 billion over more than a decade to support nuclear weapons research, had failed to achieve its goals in simulating the fusion blast of a weapon.
Technicians at the Pantex Plant in Texas, where nuclear bombs are disassembled for testing, prepare to start the evaluation process on a B61 nuclear bomb, the oldest in the arsenal. The B61 is about to undergo a major overhaul that the Pentagon estimates will cost up to $10 billion, or $25 million per bomb.
NATIONAL NUCLEAR SECURITY ADMINISTRATION