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U.S. Nuclear-Arms Cost Estimate Jumps Up $27 Billion

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Technicians perform maintenance on a W-76 nuclear warhead. An 18-year cost estimate for U.S. nuclear-arms operations has jumped up more than $27 billion, the congressional Government Accountability Office said (National Nuclear Security Administration photo). Technicians perform maintenance on a W-76 nuclear warhead. An 18-year cost estimate for U.S. nuclear-arms operations has jumped up more than $27 billion, the congressional Government Accountability Office said (National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

An 18-year spending outlook for U.S. nuclear arms has shot up by $27.1 billion, and costs could rise further still, congressional auditors said this week.

Investigators found the increase by comparing the Obama administration's latest cost estimate for maintaining and updating U.S. nuclear weapons over a set period -- fiscal years 2014 through 2031 -- to the U.S. estimate from two years ago for the same timeframe, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday.

The National Nuclear Security Administration blamed the uptick from in part on a change in its calculation method. The agency -- a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department -- noted that its projection from fiscal 2012 relied on out-of-date data based on the now-defunct Reliable Replacement Warhead program, auditors wrote in the assessment.

GAO auditors said a schedule adjustment also contributed to the cost jump, which boosted anticipated stockpile expenditures for the 18-year period from $46 billion to $73.1 billion. The Obama administration moved up plans to begin modernizing nuclear warheads for the Air Launched Cruise Missile seven years sooner -- in 2024 instead of 2031 -- bringing more of the associated costs into the time range under scrutiny.

The estimate for overall NNSA spending during the same period increased by just $19 billion, according to GAO auditors. They variation, they wrote, is due to decreases in the agency's projected spending on other agency activities, such as maintenance of the nuclear arsenal's supporting infrastructure.

They noted, though, that the agency's estimate leaves out "most of the budget estimates" for two pricey initiatives: constructing a new enriched-uranium processing plant in Tennessee, and sustaining plutonium capabilities long tied to a proposed facility that now faces cancellation.

"NNSA plans to construct these facilities or alternatives to the facilities and, as a result, NNSA’s budget estimates for the infrastructure area are not fully aligned with its modernization plans and likely underestimate the amount of funding that will be needed in future years.

The report notes several factors that could further shift NNSA cost estimates in coming years, including the agency's failure to account in its projections to date for budget cuts mandated under the 2011 Budget Control Act. Those "sequestration" reductions would crimp nuclear-weapons spending if they remain in place, the document says.

Its authors noted two other variables that could increase spending: a possible rise in expenses from contractor retirement funds, and "cost savings" built into budget estimates without full assessments of how to achieve them.

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