Senators Suggest Freeze on B-61 Bomb Funding Pending Cost Estimates

A trainer assembly for a variant of the U.S. B-61 nuclear gravity bomb. The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday urged the National Nuclear Security Administration to discontinue B-61 life extension funding until the office provides specifics related to the effort’s anticipated time line and total expense (U.S. Sandia National Laboratories/Natural Resources Defense Council).
A trainer assembly for a variant of the U.S. B-61 nuclear gravity bomb. The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday urged the National Nuclear Security Administration to discontinue B-61 life extension funding until the office provides specifics related to the effort’s anticipated time line and total expense (U.S. Sandia National Laboratories/Natural Resources Defense Council).

WASHINGTON – Senate appropriators are recommending that the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration spend no money on extending the life of the B-61 nuclear bomb until the agency provides details on the estimated total cost and schedule for the project (see GSN, April 24).

Under Phase 6.2A of the nuclear weapons life-extension program, NNSA officials are to coordinate with the Defense Department regarding preferred design options and expected refurbishment costs. In the case of the B-61, the Senate Appropriations Committee in report language approved on Thursday said it “is concerned about significant delays in completing Phase 6.2A activities and establishing a validated and precise cost, schedule and scope baseline.”

Without this information, “the committee cannot evaluate the entire life-cycle costs of the program, assess the impact on other weapons activities and proposed offsets to pay for increasing costs for the program, determine whether the proposed schedule meets military requirements, or ensure that any modifications to the weapon do not impact its safety, security and reliability,” the report for the fiscal 2013 Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill says.  Therefore, the panel “directs that no funding be used for B-61 life extension program activities until NNSA submits to the committee a validated cost, schedule and scope baseline.”

The B-61 gravity bomb dates to the 1960s and is designed to be dropped from aircraft. The United States is broadly believed to maintain approximately 200 of bombs at six bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. The post-Cold War need for the weapons has repeatedly been called into question by nonproliferation advocates, and congressional appropriators have recommended similar spending restrictions on the life extension project pending expense reports in the past (see GSN, Feb. 3).

Assuming submission of the requested information, Senate appropriators are currently also recommending a $30 million cut from the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 request for the B-61 program. The committee recommended a total of $339 million for the initiative.

Senators called for shifting the $30 million from the B-61 program toward extending the life of the W-76 nuclear warhead, which would bring total funding for that program to $204.9 million for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.

The administration’s proposal to spend $80 million less on W-76 life extension than in fiscal 2012 “would cause a three-year delay in completing this program, increase costs, and impact the Navy’s operations” in regards to what the panel characterized as “the largest share” of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. The W-76 is carried by Trident ballistic missiles loaded onto U.S. Ohio-class submarines, and refurbishment activities are intended to extend the warhead’s service life by three decades.

The administration’s plan to instead shift funding toward the B-61 bomb “is not fully justified because the B-61 life extension program is behind schedule and will not be able to efficiently spend the requested amount,” the committee said.

The panel also recommended placing restrictions on money appropriated for construction of a new uranium processing facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. While endorsing the administration’s request for a total of $340 million as a means of accelerating construction, the committee recommended that $180 million “not be available until NNSA reaches a 90 percent engineering design phase and develops a cost, schedule, and scope project baseline, which is estimated to occur by the end of calendar year 2012,” according to the report. The goal is to complete construction by 2022.

Overall, the Senate bill matches the president’s total request for NNSA nuclear weapons activities, providing nearly $7.6 billion, or $363 million more than Congress allotted for fiscal 2012, despite the various conditions and disagreements over priorities.

The committee’s spending plan includes several other demands aimed at addressing an NNSA “record of inadequate project management and oversight.” For example, the projected cost of the new uranium processing facility at Y-12 has grown from $600 million to $6 billion, the panel complained.

Among the panel’s demands is that the agency report to the Government Accountability Office every six months regarding congressional auditors’ recommendations that it “assess the risks, costs, and schedule needs for all military requirements prior to beginning a life extension program,” that it “conduct independent cost estimates for all major projects” and “conduct rigorous analyses of alternatives to justify selected project options.”

The agency should submit the twice-annual reports beginning on Oct. 1 and continue doing so “until GAO validates that the recommendations have been fully implemented,” according to the report.

Noting that GAO audits have repeatedly found that “adequate front-end planning and the development of high-quality cost and schedule estimates may help avoid the pitfalls that NNSA’s project have frequently experienced,” the committee also requested a “root cause assessment of project management.” In this vein, the committee directed the NNSA comptroller general to study “the effectiveness of the process by which NNSA conducts analyses of alternatives prior to project starts” and “how NNSA plans for and executes its projects’ design phases prior to the establishment of a cost and schedule baseline” among other things. This report is due by May 1, 2013.

In addition, the panel “directs NNSA to submit a report every six months … on the status of major projects, such as construction projects and life-extension programs, which are estimated to cost a minimum of” $750 million. “The report shall include, among other tings ... an explanation of changes, if any, to cost, schedule, scope or contingencies.” The first report is due by Oct. 1.

Noting that the administration intends to delay by five years construction of a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory – known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility – the committee said it is “troubled that NNSA has failed to put forth an alternative plutonium strategy,” and directed it to do so by October 15.

On the nonproliferation side of the budget, the senators said they are concerned “about a proposed 60 percent reduction in activities to remove or dispose of excess or abandoned radiological materials in other countries” under the NNSA Global Threat Reduction Initiative. They note that radiological materials could be used for a so-called “dirty bomb,” which “could have catastrophic consequences, including infrastructure damage and” radioactive contamination that could prohibit the use of a large geographical area and create economic losses in the billions of dollars.

“For this reason, the committee recommends [$20 million], an increase of [$12 million], for the International Radiological Material Removal program,” according to the report.

Overall, the panel matches the president’s request for funding of NNSA nonproliferation operations, providing nearly $2.5 billion, or $163 million above what Congress provided for the budget year that ends on Sept. 30.

If approved by the full Senate, the spending plan would have to be reconciled with that of House appropriators, who so far are largely endorsing the administration’s nuclear arms budget while boosting funding for select nuclear security programs (see GSN, April, 25).

NNSA officials did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

April 27, 2012
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WASHINGTON -- Senate appropriators are recommending that the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration spend no money on extending the life of the B-61 nuclear bomb until the agency provides details on the estimated total cost and schedule for the project.

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