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U.S. Could Fall Behind on W-76 Warhead Updates
The United States must substantially increase the speed at which it is updating W-76 nuclear warheads in order to keep to its schedule, but anticipated funding constraints and difficulties in controlling costs could complicate any attempt to accelerate the operations, the U.S. Energy Department's inspector general warned in a report made public on Monday.
"By the end of fiscal year 2011, [the National Nuclear Security Administration] had completed less than half of the anticipated units due to technical production issues," the Knoxville News Sentinel quoted DOE auditors as saying in the assessment.
"NNSA intended to address this problem by increasing production rates in future years," the investigators wrote. The nuclear administration is a semiautonomous Energy Department agency charged with overseeing the U.S. atomic weapons complex.
Still, no attempt at increasing the speed has proven effective to date, according to the newspaper.
"NNSA may be unable to complete the W-76 LEP [life extension program] within established scope, cost and schedule parameters, unless it adopts a more effective approach to reducing unit costs," the assessment adds. "This concern is exacerbated by the fact that the program is faced with a relatively flat budget over the next few years, even though its annual scope of work is projected to increase significantly."
The project's manufacturing output is due to rise by 59 percent in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, but the initiative would only receive a 2.9 percent funding boost in those years, the paper notes.
"The increase in production appears to be unsustainable given the projected funding," according to the analysis.
Additional expenses would result from personnel retirement benefits and the planned transfer of warhead activities to a new facility in Kansas City, Mo., though lowering individual component processing costs could serve some benefit.
"If the NNSA is not able to lower unit costs below current projections, the W-76 LEP will face large cost overruns," the document warns.
The Energy Department atomic office to date has failed to assess the implications of potentially shifting money to the W-76 update project from still-unspecified arms initiatives, as high-ranking agency officials have pledged to do if they cannot cut the warhead program's expenses.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is obligated to "conclude the W-76 LEP by FY [fiscal year] 2018, allowing only seven years to complete the 85 percent of refurbishments remaining; therefore any delays have downstream implications," the paper states. "Until the W-76 LEP is completed, NNSA cannot meet the scheduled FY 2018 start date for refurbishment of the B-61 bomb that is needed to meet United States' commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization."
Officials should prepare a "forward-looking plan" in anticipation of achieving project goals without exceeding expense projections, the auditors wrote, adding that funding cuts might require greater cost reductions than those anticipated in the analysis.
Top NNSA personnel backed the document's call for new steps to respond to present funding circumstances, but they voiced reservations over the auditors' technique for determining expenses for individual W-76 updates.
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