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Sen.: Nuke Cost To Double

SANTA FE, N.M. — Refurbishing the nation’s B61 nuclear bombs, a major project at New Mexico’s nuclear weapons labs, will cost $8 billion, double the federal government’s estimate two years ago, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Feinstein, who chairs the Senate committee overseeing the nuclear weapons budget, said the problem is the latest in a series of cost overruns in New Mexico and elsewhere that threaten the nation’s ability to modernize its aging nuclear weapons and the infrastructure that supports it.

“Increased costs and schedule delays have already had a significant impact on modernization plans,” Feinstein said during a congressional hearing Wednesday.

“If these cost overruns were in the private sector, heads would roll and the program would probably be canceled,” said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C., watchdog.

In a plan made public two years ago, the National Nuclear Security Administration estimated that it would cost $3.9 billion to refurbish the B61, a nuclear bomb originally designed by Sandia and Los Alamos national labs in the 1960s. The Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review said refurbishing the aging bombs was needed to “maintain confidence” in the weapons.

But according to Feinstein, agency officials recently told her that an internal agency review had concluded that the cost would be more than twice the previous estimate, at $8 billion. Feinstein said an independent review being conducted by the Defense Department put the cost even higher, at $10 billion.

Los Alamos and Sandia are currently involved in the design work for the refurbishment project. As the work proceeds, manufacturing of replacement parts will be done at a number of weapons plants around the country. The federal government is spending $223 million on the project this year and has asked Congress for an increase to $369 million next year, with much of that money being spent at Los Alamos and Sandia.

The National Nuclear Security Administration declined comment on Feinstein’s number.

“It is too early in the process to speculate on any final cost changes or schedule impacts, and we will not comment on numbers or dates cited in any review until the required engineering work has been completed,” NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha said in an email to reporters Wednesday evening.

A review last year by congressional auditors argued that cost and schedule problems with the B61 were the result of overreach by the project’s managers – “considering previously untried design options and concepts” rather than simply replacing bomb parts that have aged beyond their useful lives.

The ever-increasing costs of the B61 life extension program and other nuclear weapons work pose a problem for the federal government, Feinstein said, coming as Congress grapples with the risk of “sequestration” – automatic budget cuts that would take effect if Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on a deficit reduction package.

Cost overruns at a proposed multibillion plutonium laboratory in Los Alamos were so great that the project had to be indefinitely delayed, while a similar project to work with uranium in Tennessee has increased ten-fold in cost, to $6 billion, Feinstein said.

The Los Alamos plutonium lab’s estimated cost has risen from $800 million in 2007 to $4 billion to $6 billion before the Obama administration deferred the project earlier this year.

Part of the reason for delaying the Los Alamos project, Feinstein noted, was to free up the money needed for the B61.

“The new B61 extension program cost estimate alone requires NNSA to find an additional $4 billion at a time when budgets are shrinking and sequestration is a real possibility,” Feinstein said.