Today, the Los Angeles Times published a story about how the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced that the "first refurbished W76 nuclear warhead had been accepted into the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile by the Navy," when in fact no delivery was ever made to the Navy.
POGO alerted the Times about the story because the NNSA was (mis)using the example of the W76 to promote itself. In March of this year, NNSA's Deputy Administrator boasted of the refurbished W76: "This is another great example of the unsurpassed expertise throughout NNSA's national security enterprise." In fact, it was the NNSA's mismanagement of the refurbishment process that led to the serious technical problems that resulted in the warheads' status--currently in pieces inside a production cell at the Energy Department's Pantex plant. The Navy told the Times, "We have not received delivery of any refurbished W76 warheads. The answer is none."
Those who believe in the refurbishment process, also known as the Life Extension Program (LEP), are outraged at how the process has been devalued by senior Lab management. For example, Roger Logan, a former Livermore Lab weapons designer and certifier, told POGO:
"LLNS&LANS [the contractors running Livermore and Los Alamos]...did everything they could to chase away W76 (and B61) expertise at both Livermore and Los Alamos. I was alarmed when my colleagues at Los Alamos sent me the long string of names of experts on these systems that LANS...chased out of the weapons program. Why? Because these people were honest and therefore a threat to the LLNS&LANS profiteering agenda.
Protect the labs...and screw the production plants. This theme pervades nearly every study to this day...It is often unintentional -- but fueled by the "Gray Beards", protecting the money at the labs they fondly remember at the expense of the "non-scientists" and production plants. Manufacturing and assembly is just viewed as menial and trivial, often by those who have never done it. The result is that the people at the plants -- and considering such careers -- got the message -- LEAVE. So they did."
NNSA instead promotes unproven, but showy, projects like the National Ignition Facility (NIF) instead of the LEP program and high risk components for a critical weapons system. According to Logan, these more boring, menial (but essential) missions were neglected at the expense of drama, purported science, and profit. The operating costs of refurbishment is about $200 million per year as opposed to the $400 million per year operating costs on NIF alone (if it works).
This story is not to say that the LEP program can not work. In fact, the Knoxville News' Frank Munger reports that the technical problems at Y-12 that had been holding up the completion of the W76 refurbishment were finally resolved in March. So the issue is not that we can't refurbish the warheads, but that NNSA is incredibly sloppy and regularly hides behind national security to avoid accountability, and we've been letting them get away with it for too long. And pretending they are doing a good job when they are not does not provide the confidence necessary for this critical mission. NNSA needs to be held accountable for not maintaining the integrity of one of its most important responsibilities and lying about the status of its programs. Ultimately, what this story shows is that NNSA needs new leadership that will no longer make excuses for its mismanagement, but will instead demand excellence.
-- Ingrid Drake and Peter Stockton