U.S. Agency Readies Controversial Shift of Nuclear Component Work

(Mar. 27) -An isotope of hydrogen, tritium is used to boost the yield of nuclear weapons.
(Mar. 27) -An isotope of hydrogen, tritium is used to boost the yield of nuclear weapons.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. agency that oversees the nation's nuclear weapons complex is shifting design work on a key warhead component -- the tritium gas system -- from one government laboratory to another, a move that is generating some controversy (see GSN, Nov. 10, 2008).

Robert Smolen -- until last month a top National Nuclear Security Administration official -- announced the decision in a Jan. 5 internal memo. The agency, he said, would soon consolidate responsibility for designing tritium "gas transfer systems" from the two organizations currently performing the work -- the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories -- down to a single site, Sandia's facility in Livermore, Calif.

Congress in 2000 established the National Nuclear Security Administration as a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department. The agency oversees the national laboratories as part of its mandate to maintain the stockpile.

The component at the center of debate, called the "gas transfer system," moves tritium from container bottles into the core of the nuclear warhead as the weapon explodes. It "enables tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, to boost the yield of a nuclear weapon," according to an NNSA statement issued a day after Smolen's internal memo.

The news release heralded the decision without identifying New Mexico-based Los Alamos as the facility expected to lose the work.

The NNSA announcement went largely unnoticed and a number of issue experts contacted for this article said they could not comment before learning more about the move. One U.S. nuclear weapons official opined that the arcane bureaucratic machinations amount to little more than "inside baseball."

However, new revelations about the initiative raise broad questions about how competing interests might affect the future safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons.

Complex Transformation

Smolen -- a Bush administration appointee who left his NNSA post as deputy administrator for defense programs when President Barack Obama took office in January -- has described the shift as part of "Complex Transformation." The NNSA initiative is aimed at consolidating nuclear enterprise operations and facilities to achieve greater efficiency and cost savings.

However, critics of the gas transfer decision say it lacks a clear rationale on the basis of either cost or program effectiveness. Detractors include not only Los Alamos personnel who stand to lose the work, but also a number of deputies inside NNSA headquarters and scientists outside of Los Alamos, Global Security Newswire has learned.

In addition, an independent analysis performed at the nuclear agency's behest argued in October against the shift.

In its assessment, Los Alamos, N.M.-based consulting firm TechSource examined several prospective consolidation moves related to the tritium transfer system. In addition to moving the Los Alamos gas transfer design responsibility to Sandia, TechSource reviewed the NNSA intention to shift two other related functions out of Los Alamos. Tritium research and development would move to a complex at Savannah River Site, S.C., and component production would go to a facility in Kansas City, Mo.

The analysts found that a reassignment of these tritium research and development functions -- most importantly, to include the component design responsibility -- would offer negligible savings and might increase the risk that U.S. nuclear weapons malfunction.

Los Alamos currently serves as the gas transfer system design agency for the nuclear weapons it originally designed, while Sandia's California facility performs the same role for warheads originating at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which shares the same campus.

In the current nuclear stockpile, Los Alamos designed warheads for the B-61 gravity bomb and Minuteman 3 ICBM, plus two weapons for the Trident D-5 sea-launched ballistic missile. Livermore designed one warhead for the B-83 gravity bomb and another for the Peacekeeper ICBM; the Livermore warhead was retrofitted onto selected Minuteman 3 missiles when Peacekeeper was retired.

Design work on the warhead component is part of the agency's "Stockpile Stewardship Program," funded at $5.1 billion this fiscal year. The effort is aimed at ensuring the continued reliability, safety and security of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Toward that end, laboratory scientists design detailed blueprints for the maintenance, repair and replacement of tritium-transfer components as part of an overall refurbishment to extend a warhead's service life.

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy-makers have opted to extend the viability of existing warheads in the stockpile without underground testing, rather than replace them with new designs that might require test blasts.

TechSource noted the stakes involved when it reported that if a warhead's tritium system malfunctioned, the nuclear weapon could not be expected to destroy its target.

"If the tritium [gas transfer system] does not function properly, the weapon will not meet its military requirements," the October report reads. "There is no redundancy."

Given the critical nature of the component and "very successful" design work that Los Alamos has performed to date, the TechSource analysts wondered why the nuclear agency would opt to shift future responsibility to Sandia.

The Stockpile Stewardship Program "is best served by two independent [design agencies] for the purposes of competing new [gas transfer system] technology development and [conducting] peer review," TechSource wrote.

The analysts added: "The tritium [gas transfer system] mission is too important to the safety and reliability of the stockpile, too important to NNSA and [Defense Department] operations and too successful to change without identifying substantive programmatic or economic benefits to offset the risk."

The report's lead author, Steve Guidice, declined to comment for this article.

Risk For a Pending Warhead Redesign?

"Anytime you change anything, you run into some risk because you're making a change," Smolen, the former NNSA official, acknowledged in a March 3 telephone interview. "Something is different and it's not what you're accustomed to and you don't feel as at-ease because you've made a change. I fully accept that."

However, these qualms should not pose an insurmountable problem and are an acceptable price to pay for the benefits of consolidation, he suggested.

Critics of the decision stop short of questioning Sandia's ability to excel at this expanded portfolio, once laboratory engineers come up to speed on the Los Alamos designs. Rather, they worry about risks incurred during the months or years that it takes to transition the responsibility from one facility to another.

In particular, concerns focus on how warhead life-extension program schedules and quality might slip for some period of time when Los Alamos transfers its design enterprise to Sandia.

Los Alamos experts on the gas transfer system, based in New Mexico, are not expected to move to Sandia's California facilities, suggesting to some in the nuclear weapons community that management continuity could be lost.

Selected members of Smolen's own staff expressed worries about this aspect of his draft decision before it was finalized.

No fewer than four NNSA office directors last June and July raised concerns about risks the move could introduce for pending warhead life-extension efforts, with one agency executive officially "nonconcurring" with Smolen's decision, GSN has learned.

Specifically, some U.S. officials have noted that schedules to begin designing an overhaul of the Air Force's B-61 nuclear bomb in the coming months could be thrown into jeopardy as the nuclear agency launches its consolidation effort. Under existing plans, the first of roughly 900 B-61 bombs are to begin receiving upgrades as early as 2015.

"I work with both labs and they all do good work," Billy Mullins, a senior Air Force nuclear weapons planning official, said in an interview. "I just want to make sure that the [B-61] LEP schedule is not impacted."

What Mullins wants to see in Sandia's forthcoming transition plan -- which NNSA officials say is expected by late April -- is that "when they transfer it, they're ready to take it and they do not impact Air Force programs," he said.

"Could there be a delay?" asked Smolen, who retired from the Air Force as a two-star general in November 2007. "I think there are other, probably higher risk areas than this that have the potential to delay things, more than this might."

He declined to elaborate.

"The risks and challenges" of the NNSA decision to shift the design work "are to capture the specific knowledge base developed by [Los Alamos] to support its particular weapon systems and transfer the data" and expertise to Sandia, NNSA defense program officials told GSN in a written response to queries. "Initiating activities this year provides the best opportunity to execute a seamless transition."

However, if nothing else, lingering contention over the decision could delay its implementation, according to some government officials. The potential impact on the Air Force bomb refurbishment effort remains unclear.

Physics or Mechanics?

Critics of Smolen's decision argue that any work related to the central part of a Los Alamos-designed nuclear warhead -- the so-called "physics package" capable of creating a chain reaction -- should remain where the brain trust resides for those specific weapons.

"What ... NNSA is proposing to do is take a piece of the 'physics package' away from the design agency [at Los Alamos] and move it to Sandia," said one U.S. weapons policy adviser. "And if you suddenly start picking out pieces from that system, it makes it even more difficult for us to continue to assure how those systems will work, God help us, if the president ever decides to use one."

Along with several others interviewed for this article, the policy official requested anonymity, citing sensitivities involved in publicly challenging the NNSA decision.

Smolen rejects the notion that the gas transfer system is part of a nuclear weapon's core physics package, describing it instead as a mechanical element that falls more appropriately under Sandia's longtime purview.

"Doing non-nuclear engineering components is not the function of what Los Alamos does as a primary core competency," he said in the phone interview.

Whether the gas transfer system should be regarded as part of the physics package -- and thus arguably remain part of Los Alamos' portfolio -- is "a judgment call," Smolen conceded.

However, he asserted, "there's dozens of other components that you can make the same argument for. You could for fuses, for all kinds of things. Where do you draw the line?"

For Los Alamos weapon designs, "the gas transfer system is critically important to how well that weapon will function," responded one senior government weapons engineer, interviewed the same day. "It is not just another non-nuclear component."

Costs "Not a Driving Factor"

Also at issue is whether future cost estimates justify the action.

If the nuclear agency continues a plan to shift other tritium R&D; programs out of Los Alamos -- but reverses itself on moving the design responsibilities to Sandia -- that would cost $424 million over a 20-year period beginning in fiscal 2010, according to the TechSource report.

That option is actually the most expensive among four long-term budget scenarios the agency considered.

The second most costly is the one Smolen selected, at $415 million over 20 years, under which the design responsibility as well as other tritium-related work is undertaken outside of Los Alamos.

The two least costly budget options would be to retain the status quo at $329 million between 2010 and 2030, or even cheaper, to consolidate all tritium-related work at Los Alamos. The latter alternative would offer a $137 million savings compared to taking no action at all.

According to government officials, the cost comparisons tend to stack up in favor of keeping tritium research work at Los Alamos because that laboratory has a much smaller staff performing gas transfer work, compared to the other facilities. Moreover, any dollar benefits of a shift are discounted in the analyses because they would accrue only in the longer term.

"If I have to invest money in the near term to gain savings out toward the end of that 20 years, there's not a huge benefit there," the weapons design engineer said. "That's part of the issue with making a change: You have to spend money to make the change."

Smolen takes issue with the idea, though, that cost concerns should have played a stronger role in his decision.

"Cost is kind of a wash," he said. "Cost is not a driving factor in making it either move or not move."

"This decision was based on overall benefits to the enterprise," NNSA officials said in a written statement this month. "Any cost difference represents an investment to capture these benefits."

In its report, TechSource emphasized that the gas transfer system design program constitutes just a small fraction of the overall Stockpile Stewardship budget. If the National Nuclear Security Administration wants to trim down the nuclear weapons enterprise, it should focus instead on consolidation concepts with potential for bigger payoff and smaller risk, the analysis suggested.

Research and development work on this component totals roughly $25 million annually, according to the report, comprising less than 1 percent of the overall Stockpile Stewardship budget this fiscal year.

The tritium assembly design work "involves few people" -- roughly 60 full-time personnel slots -- and costs so little relative to the entire Stockpile Stewardship effort, "yet it has high direct impact on the stockpile and DOD operations," the report states.

"To be credible," transformation of the nuclear weapons complex "should focus on the many thousands of people currently employed" by the Stockpile Stewardship program, "not the net difference of a few tens of people doing [gas transfer system] work," according to the company's report.

Rather than focus on incremental costs, the nuclear agency wants each of the laboratories and facilities it oversees to concentrate on their respective areas of primary expertise.

"In the end, NNSA looked across its sites and across mission capabilities to reach broad decisions on the best means to sustain the nuclear weapons complex, including infrastructure, materials and skill sets, culminating in several separate decisions," the agency said in its written responses. "Making this assignment to Sandia is consistent with this laboratory's strength in engineering, integrated system design and its overall responsibility for non-nuclear components."

"In the spirit of Complex Transformation, what we're trying to do is set up centers of excellence," Smolen explained. "We want Los Alamos to stay focused on its primary mission, which is plutonium. Now, you have to ask yourself, why does Los Alamos need to do gas transfer systems?"

He contended that some laboratory officials are clinging to a wide array of scientific specialties for parochial reasons.

"There are a handful of people -- and literally a handful, three or four people -- who are just absolutely in love with what Los Alamos does," Smolen said. "They are absolutely convinced that none of this should ever be transferred out of Los Alamos, but Los Alamos is the absolute place where everything that can be done at Los Alamos ought to be done at Los Alamos."

Critics insist the tritium system design responsibility is not a parochial issue, a point they say is illustrated by concerns that extend beyond individuals at Los Alamos. In fact, some U.S. government officials have questioned whether Smolen, who recently became a senior national security fellow at Lawrence Livermore's Center for Global Security Research, might have had personal reasons for assigning the work to Sandia's Livermore-based facility.

"I'm not associated with anything to do with NNSA, because of the conflict-of-interest areas," Smolen said in early March, before it was publicly known that he would join Livermore. "I don't advise anyone in NNSA at this point, [or] any of the federal [agencies], because of the conflict of interest."

Reached at Livermore on March 18, Smolen said that for a one-year period, he would not work on the gas transfer system or other issues that he handled while serving as the NNSA deputy administrator.

"Stand There"

As a matter of program effectiveness, the nuclear agency should have simply preserved the status quo, according to one retired weapons designer.

"I have very high confidence in the person directing the Los Alamos effort," the former official said March 11. "Starting over again, even with people experienced in the general area, offered some potential for loss in my confidence."

The potential harm is akin to too many chefs spoiling the broth, the current weapons engineer suggested in an interview the prior week.

"When you're in the middle of a development program, you're making development hardware, you're looking at it, you're making decisions, and you don't want two different sets of folks making different decisions," the current senior weapons engineer said in an interview the prior week. "You want to be as consistent as you can, because you've got to get that done on a schedule and on a budget."

However, Smolen argued that Los Alamos gas-transfer experts could facilitate the transition by working closely with their Sandia counterparts. Thanks to electronic connectivity and face-to-face contact just an airplane ride away, there should be minimal risk to ongoing programs, he insisted.

Laboratory scientists and engineers "routinely hop on airplanes and go to other laboratories to provide advice on lots of other things," Smolen said. "So if Sandia got in a position where they needed some of that expertise for whatever reason, there's no reason why those [Los Alamos] guys couldn't go and do that."

To the former weapons designer, this approach might ultimately work out fine but is not the best way to approach the task.

"I'm always very skeptical about NNSA feeling they should do something" in instances when action is unnecessary, the former official said. "My motto for NNSA is: Don't just do something, stand there," he quipped. "Many of these so-called consolidations are not so much risky as inefficient."

Smolen emphasized that he reached out to a number of experts, beyond TechSource, to inform his decision.

Other key voices, according to Smolen, included the top weapons directors at each of the three national laboratories: Glenn Mara of Los Alamos, Joan Woodard of Sandia and Bruce Goodwin of Lawrence Livermore.

"I told them to review all of this, talk to all of the people, and tell me really what the three of you -- as heartbeats away from being the director -- what do you think the right answer is. And they came back to me and said the transfer was the right idea," said Smolen, adding that the view was unanimous.

The former NNSA deputy's January decision memo reflects that understanding, stating, "All laboratories support the decision."

However, others have since cast doubt on the notion that Mara and Los Alamos voiced support for the move before it was finalized.

"Los Alamos senior management had full and frank discussions with Bob Smolen and his senior team at [NNSA] headquarters [and] outlined why" leaving the work at the New Mexico laboratory "was in the best interest of national security," said the weapons policy adviser.

Following the decision, Los Alamos officials have said they would do whatever necessary to support the transition, even if they disagreed with it, according to government sources.

Mara declined a request for comment.

March 27, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. agency that oversees the nation's nuclear weapons complex is shifting design work on a key warhead component -- the tritium gas system -- from one government laboratory to another, a move that is generating some controversy (see GSN, Nov. 10, 2008).