The sprawling nuclear weapons laboratory here is just starting construction of a $1-billion plutonium research center, part of an ambitious plan to modernize its outdated facilities.
But congressional analysts and outside watchdogs are calling it a boondoggle -- a facility that will be obsolete less than eight years after it opens. A congressional report this spring called the plan “simply irrational,” and House lawmakers are trying to kill the project.
“It is stupid to put money into a limited-life thing like this,” said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees energy. “We are resisting spending that money.”
It was a tough -- but increasingly routine -- rebuke for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, a vast enterprise of labs and factories from South Carolina to California that has thrived in the post-Cold War era.
The federal government has spent more than $65 billion on the complex over the last decade, and experts agree the United States has nuclear weapons that are reliable for use in war, safe from accidental detonation and secure from terrorists.
But Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as outside analysts, have grown increasingly concerned about what they see as sloppy management by the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Among other things, they cite scientific mistakes and cost overruns on projects at the nation’s two nuclear weapons design centers -- an X-ray machine at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a laser at Lawrence Livermore in the Bay Area.
“It has been one problem after another,” said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The current administrator should be fired.”
Not surprisingly, that administrator, Linton F. Brooks, who was the chief U.S. arms control negotiator in the early 1990s, sharply disagrees. He calls the program to maintain the reliability of aging bombs “a rousing success.”
Bomb scientists say the extra spending on nuclear weapons is necessary because the U.S. stopped underground nuclear testing in 1992. Maintaining the reliability of the weapons -- something the industry calls “stockpile stewardship” -- requires a massive, and expensive, scientific effort.
And even though the last nuclear weapon rolled off the assembly line in the early 1990s, the complex has until recently received nearly every big-ticket item it has requested. Much of that money has been poured into scientific research, advanced computers and massive physics instruments at the Los Alamos and Livermore labs.
The most successful part of the program has involved advanced computation. Livermore has the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Blue Gene L, which can perform 280 trillion mathematical operations per second. The sleek black computer sits in a refrigerated, high-security vault.
Late last year, the lab first simulated the detonation of a nuclear bomb in three dimensions, a long-standing goal critical to maintaining aging weapons.
But other parts of the scientific program have not gone as well, including the construction of a massive X-ray machine at Los Alamos known as the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility.
It was originally designed to photograph a simulated nuclear trigger as it implodes under the tremendous forces of high explosives. But the machine evolved into a much more sophisticated device that could take four time-lapsed photographs within less than a millionth of a second.
When it was finally assembled, though, one of the device’s two X-ray arms did not work because of instability in a high-energy electron beam. The defect forced scientists to take the arm apart and modify it at great cost. What began as a $10-million project is now estimated to cost $360 million when it is finally completed.
Meanwhile, Livermore also has had serious problems building the world’s most powerful laser, intended to simulate the thermonuclear detonation that occurs in a hydrogen bomb. The laser, called the National Ignition Facility, is intended to ignite fusion in a test chamber by aiming 192 high-powered laser beams at a tiny fuel target.
That proved to be harder than anybody realized, said Thomas D’Agostino, the nuclear weapons chief at the NNSA. The cost grew from below $1 billion to about $3.4 billion.
“We ran into technical problems that we couldn’t imagine,” D’Agostino said.
Lab officials argue that both the X-ray machine and the laser will eventually pay huge dividends for scientific research. The technical setbacks reflect their groundbreaking challenges and constitute the kinds of scientific risk the public must accept for advanced research.
D’Agostino added that many of the problems were rooted in the past and that the NNSA, which is part of the Energy Department, was doing a better job managing its activities, including dismantlement of surplus nuclear weapons and the overhaul of existing ones.
But congressional leaders say the department has hardly solved its problems.
“We have a lot of frustration,” said Hobson, who held a series of tough hearings on the department’s failures. “We have frustrations with cost and we have frustrations with progress. They are on a better track, but they have a long way to go.”
The agency’s highly technical problems in recent years were accompanied by other basic breakdowns. Audits and investigations by the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, and the Energy Department’s inspector general have uncovered management problems, loose financial controls and weak internal security.
In June, it was disclosed that hackers had broken into Energy Department computers and stolen data on 1,500 employees, possibly including sensitive information used in their government clearances. The breach wasn’t disclosed to employees, senior department officials or members of Congress for nine months.
Barton was furious, saying Brooks should have personally notified Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. Amid calls for Brooks’ resignation, Bodman ordered an investigation by the inspector general.
“If the agency can’t protect the Social Security records of its employees, how can it protect large quantities of plutonium?” Barton said.
These problems are occurring just as the agency wants to begin an ambitious multibillion-dollar effort to modernize its research and production system in the next 25 years.
The agency wants to restart the production of nuclear weapons, replace existing weapons with new warheads and build new production facilities. Eventually, the U.S. would be able to produce more than 125 nuclear weapons per year.
It has not offered a price tag for the effort, but an advisory committee put the cost at $10 billion in extra spending over the next 10 years.
Congressional critics point out the agency lacks a cohesive and affordable agenda: It wants to maintain the high-cost stockpile stewardship program and build new facilities to restart weapons production.
“I do not believe we have the proper approach,” said Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Energy Department. “It is not my job to maximize spending on this program.”
The subcommittee voted this spring to kill the Los Alamos plutonium research facility, and the full House backed the move.
The Senate wants to keep funding the project, though it also has serious problems with plans for the facility, known formally as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement complex.
The facility, expected to be completed by 2017, is so expensive because it requires sophisticated security to safeguard the plutonium from potential terrorist attacks. But its key role in plutonium research would end by 2024, when all plutonium in the nation is supposed to be put in a centralized facility for better security.
D’Agostino said the $1-billion investment would still be worthwhile because the laboratory would continue research into chemistry and metallurgy after the plutonium is transferred.
But Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group, called the investment “worse than a boondoggle.” The program would delay plans to centralize plutonium, leaving a potential target for terrorists, she said.
Some retired nuclear weapons scientists also are dismayed by a culture that puts too high a priority on spending.
“I am a strong believer in maintaining a nuclear deterrent,” said Bob Peurifoy, a retired vice president at Sandia National Laboratory who pioneered the security systems that prevent unauthorized use of nuclear bombs. “But I would like to have some integrity within the labs and management. They’ll do anything for a buck.”
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Supporting the stockpile
The U.S. nuclear weapons complex, operated by the National Nuclear Security Administration, consists of eight major sites across the nation that support an estimated 6,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile. They include:
1. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: The nation’s second nuclear weapons design lab, specializing in high-energy lasers and computational models of weapons. It is responsible for assuring the reliability of four nuclear weapon models.
2. Nevada Test Site: Location for more than 1,000 underground nuclear tests, which ended in 1992. Since then, the 1,375- square-mile site has been used for experiments to support maintenance of existing weapons.
3. Los Alamos National Laboratory: The first nuclear weapons design center; it built the two bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. The 43-square-mile lab is the only U.S. facility able to produce plutonium triggers for weapons.
4. Sandia National Laboratories: The engineering center for all non-nuclear weapon components, including arming and firing systems. It designs and builds electronic locks that prevent unauthorized weapons use.
5. Pantex plant: Only U.S. nuclear weapons assembly plant; also decommissions old bombs; main storage facility for 10,000 plutonium pits from old bombs.
6. Kansas City plant: The main factory for producing non-nuclear components of weapons, including many electronics and wiring systems.
7. Y-12 National Security Complex: Manufactures and reworks the thermonuclear stages of hydrogen bombs. Y-12 is the center for storing and machining highly enriched uranium.
8. Savannah River Site: Produces tritium gas, a form of hydrogen, used in fission triggers for hydrogen bombs. Tritium is extracted from fuel rods and then packed in welded reservoirs placed in nuclear bombs.
Source: National Nuclear Security Administration