ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Is Sandia National Laboratories to blame for cost overruns in the multibillion-dollar effort to refurbish the U.S. arsenal of B61 nuclear bombs?
A December 2011 evaluation by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency that oversees Sandia’s work, suggests the answer is, at least in part, “yes.”
But experts say decisions made across the nuclear weapons enterprise seem also to have played a role, that there is blame to go around for a project that members of Congress say has increased from $4 billion to at least $8 billion in estimated cost.
In a world in which the United States no longer builds new nuclear weapons, refurbishing aging cold war bombs and warheads has taken on all the trappings of the new weapon design-build process.
Sandia and the other nuclear weapons labs do the design work, then hand the plans off to manufacturing teams (some at Sandia, some elsewhere) for the manufacturing work.
But when Sandia handed in preliminary designs last year for refurbishing the B61, the estimated cost busted the project’s budget, according to a National Nuclear Security Agency review completed last December and made public earlier this year under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The estimated cost for executing Sandia’s design “significantly exceeded the president’s budget and the initial Sandia estimates provided in FY2010 and FY2011,” the report said.
The disconnect between budget and estimated costs placed the program’s schedule in jeopardy, the report alleged. But U.S. nuclear weapons program managers have been frustratingly opaque in their explanations of the problem.
Whatever the cause, officials say they are working on a redesign effort – “a thorough re-examination of the requirements of the B61,” in the words of Sandia spokesman Jim Danneskiold that would result in “significant reductions” in the cost of the work.
Sandia and NNSA officials refused to say what the new cost estimate is.
“Design and engineering are continuing, so it is premature to assign a formal baseline cost,” NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha said in a statement Monday.
The B61 bomb is versatile, carried aboard Air Force planes for carrying out a variety of missions. Its most noteworthy role is a stockpile based in Europe as part of NATO’s strategic counter to Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces.
Officials say the bombs, built in the 1960s and ’70s, need refurbishment to extend their useful life. Independent experts say the budget overruns resulted from the decision to pick a “Cadillac” design option for the project, packing more changes into the refurbishment than are needed to maintain the B61’s basic capabilities.
The nuclear weapons community as a whole, including Sandia, the NNSA, and the U.S. military leadership likely played a role in that decision, they say.
Rather than simply making necessary changes to deal with parts that are aging, the designers seem to have opted for a wholesale redesign of the bomb’s innards – “loaded everything on it except for the kitchen sink, even though the B61 is OK the way it is,” said Bob Peurifoy, a retired Sandia vice president who, during his career, worked on the existing B61 design.
“We know that the cost overruns are the result of the nuclear weapons community … trying to do way too much,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy analyst at the Monterey Institute who has written extensively on the problem.
A review last year by congressional auditors suggested Sandia should not shoulder all the blame.
The auditors said the Nuclear Weapons Council, a joint body of Pentagon and NNSA officials who oversee decisions about the arsenal, had laid out an “ambitious scope” for the refurbishment project without fully considering the risk to the project’s schedule and budget.
Wherever the blame lies, it was just two months after the NNSA’s December 2011 report criticizing Sandia’s work on the project that federal officials for the first time began publicly hinting at the problem.
In the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget request to Congress, the agency acknowledged the schedule for the B61 project would slip by two years. Instead of 2017, the first refurbished bombs would not roll off the assembly lines until 2019.
Tom D’Agostino, head of the NNSA, endured a ritual beating by members of Congress over the resulting delay. That beating had a predictably partisan flavor, with the administration’s Republican critics piling on over the problem. But at the time, the agency had only fessed up about the schedule delay. We did not know the design in question had dramatically busted the budget.
The real depth of congressional ire, and the fact that this was not a partisan problem, became clear in July when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, revealed that the NNSA’s agency’s internal cost estimates for the work had swelled from $4 billion to at least $8 billion.
Many critics, including Lewis in a widely read September piece in Foreign Policy magazine, argue that the B61 is of little strategic value and question whether it’s worth refurbishment at all.
But if you accept the defense Establishment’s view that the work needs to be done, it’s important to get this budget planning stuff right.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal