Could the Department of Energy (DoE) be engaging in a form of planned obsolescence when it comes to our nation’s nuclear stockpile? That unsettling thought may not be far from the truth.
In an article published today by the LA Times, Ralph Vartabedian reports on serious problems at the DoE’s Pantex facility in Amarillo, TX. One of these problems is the backlog of surveillance testing on nuclear weapons. Such tests are conducted annually to ensure the reliability of these weapons. A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report describes the process:
A key task of the Complex is to monitor warheads for signs of actual or future deterioration. This work is done through a program that conducts routine surveillance of warheads in the stockpile by closely examining 11 warheads of each type per year to search for corrosion, gases, and other evidence of deterioration. Of the 11, one is taken apart for destructive evaluation, while the other 10 are evaluated nondestructively and returned to the stockpile. In addition, an Enhanced Surveillance Program supports surveillance; its goal “is to develop diagnostic tools and predictive models that will make it possible to analyze and predict the effects that aging may have on weapon materials, components, and systems.”
When routine surveillance detects warhead problems, the Complex applies knowledge gained through SSP to fix problems through the Life Extension Program (LEP), which attempts “to extend the stockpile lifetime of a warhead or warhead components at least 20 years with a goal of 30 years” beyond the originally anticipated deployment time.
When this routine process breaks down, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine which weapons problems need to be addressed by the LEP. As a result, reliability of the weapons themselves begins to suffer.
Although the man in charge of the nuclear weapons complex, Marty Schoenbauer, seems to disagree with this fact, those who have actually worked in the testing program concur:
But Ralph Levine, who once ran the Energy Department's nuclear weapons surveillance testing, wrote a letter in 2005 asserting the backlog would allow defects in nuclear weapons to go undetected for years. As a result, he said, Energy officials removed him as manager of the program, and he retired last year.
John Duncan, who until four years ago headed surveillance testing at Pantex for Sandia National Laboratory, agreed that testing problems at Pantex are undermining confidence in the stockpile. Even today, the certifications of nuclear weapons are being made with less certainty than scientists should have, Duncan and Levine said.
So in the face of a backlog on surveillance testing and its importance for weapons reliability, it makes sense that the DoE would seek to expand the program. Yet the Department has done the exact opposite, stating last Friday that it plans to decrease the number of tests conducted annually.
Why would the DoE do such a thing? The most likely answer is the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program avidly supported by nuclear labs and the Department. By diminishing the ability of existing programs to ensure weapons reliability, approval for increased funding and acceptance of the RRW program by Congress would be virtually guaranteed.
If this is a case of planned obsolescence, it’s an extremely dangerous game.
-- John Pruett