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Audit cites problems at LANL, Sandia

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Federal auditors have come down on the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, including the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories in New Mexico, for failing to keep track of nuclear weapons designs and for not ensuring that parts used in the nuclear stockpile are reliable.

The National Nuclear Security Administration sites “could not always locate as-built product definitions or associated drawings for nuclear weapons and components in its official records repositories,” the audit states.

The March 26 Department of Energy Inspector General’s report also was concerned about some of the non-conforming parts being used in nuclear weapons.

Without the proper information and safeguards, “NNSA loses confidence in its nuclear weapons stockpile,” the document adds.

In one scary-sounding example of the problems cited in the report, 11 nuclear warheads delivered to the Navy in 2010 had to be returned because material used to prevent an electro-static discharge from accidentally setting off “the main charge of the weapon” had been damaged during production.

An NNSA spokesman on Friday declined comment beyond the agency’s official written responses to the audit. NNSA’s management comments don’t dispute the findings and concur with recommendations on how to get better.

The inspector general’s report found:

  • At Sandia, officials couldn’t locate in “the official NNSA records management systems” design drawings for neutron generators used in 16 of 36 weapons that were reviewed. The inspector general’s auditors couldn’t find the drawings, either. Although Sandia officials said the drawings might be somewhere else, “the retrieval of such drawings could be a very time-consuming process,” the report says.

Sandia spokesman Jim Danneskiold said Sandia did find all but one of the drawings, which had been misnumbered, and all of the product definitions for the neutron generators.

LANL got good marks in this area. There, “as-built definitions were easily identified,” the report says. It notes that auditors at Los Alamos sampled 24 plutonium “pits,” devices used to trigger nuclear bombs, and the definitions and drawings for all of them were located.

  • LANL allowed changes to classified nuclear weapons drawings without using a documented and approved change notice, the report states. In one case, lab officials “told us they ‘assumed’ the changes were needed,” the auditors said. NNSA later informed the auditors the change had been needed to correct an error.

LANL also didn’t limit access to weapons drawings as required and “circumvented” a control over changes after a weapons design drawing had been approved. The Los Alamos lab gave 30 nuclear weapons designers the ability to make changes to drawings whether they were assigned to a particular weapons project or not.

Lab officials said they didn’t limit designer access because they believed they had internal processes that were “more efficient, without raising risk issues.”

By making changes to released drawings after the drawings have been extensively reviewed and approved, “NNSA is at increased risk of unauthorized and inappropriate changes to nuclear weapons design information,” the report asserts.

Sandia, meanwhile, earned kudos for its control of weapons drawings. Once a drawing has been approved at Sandia, it is in “read only” status and can’t be changed after release. Sandia’s practices “effectively decreased the risk of unauthorized changes to nuclear weapons drawings.”

  • At the Pantex plant in Texas, officials couldn’t locate the as-built product definitions for 14 of 36 nuclear weapons that the auditors selected from the current stockpile for review. Of 22 weapons for which Pantex did have as-built definitions, the plant couldn’t find the drawings of 13.

Parts problems

The auditors also were concerned about the use of non-conforming weapons parts, failures to obtain engineering evaluations to support waivers from parts specifications and lack of a “fully implemented supplier quality management program.”

The report says that of 30 “specification exception releases” for parts sampled at LANL, 19 did not have the required technical justification.

“As such, officials lacked assurance that the component was suitable for use in a nuclear weapon.” LANL officials said the lab’s quality reviewers likely knew the engineers involved and relied on their professional opinion.

Only seven of 56 exception releases reviewed at Sandia didn’t have proper evaluations. The report said Sandia implemented corrections in this area in 2009 and the audit didn’t find problems there after 2010.

“The acceptance of nuclear weapons parts and components that do not meet specifications has potential readiness, reliability, cost and timeliness implications,” the report states. “For example, in one case, this situation resulted in a 1-year delay in component production and additional costs of approximately $20-$25 million.”

Also, “not having a fully implemented supplier quality control program can have devastating impacts on the reliability and safety of our nuclear weapon,” the document says.

As an example of those concerns, the reports cites 11 of 23 W76-1 nuclear warheads delivered to the Navy four years ago that had to be returned because of damaged “dielectric material” needed to prevent an electro-static discharge from accidentally setting off the weapon’s main charge.

Not a priority

The audit maintains that neither the NNSA nor its sites treated maintenance of original nuclear weapons design information as a priority. “Such information is needed to ensure that a specific serialized weapon could be associated with its as-built product definition from cradle to grave,” the report adds. It says some “irreplaceable” nuclear weapons design material on microcfiche or film media is degrading.

“Not having complete and accurate (weapons configuration) information can have significant effects on surveillance and safety,” the auditors said.

But NNSA is now trying to make sure most weapons definition materials are digitized and “accessible for future needs,” the report adds.


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