Daily Dispatches
The Los Alamos National laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.
Associated Press photo/Albuquerque Journal
The Los Alamos National laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.

Nation’s nuke program blows through extra $16 billion

Government

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) racked up $16 billion in cost overruns on 10 major projects that are a combined 38 years behind schedule, according to reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The runaway costs are the result of years of lax accountability and nearly automatic annual budget increases. 

For example: At Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a 7-year, $213 million upgrade to the security system that protects the lab’s most sensitive nuclear bomb-making facilities doesn’t work.

In Tennessee, the price tag for a new uranium processing facility has grown nearly sevenfold to upwards of $6 billion because of problems that include a redesign to raise the roof. 

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The estimated cost of an ongoing effort to refurbish 400 of the country’s B61 nuclear bombs has grown from $1.5 billion to $10 billion.

The NNSA has cancelled or suspended other projects, despite hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, because they grew too bloated.

Advocates say the spending increases are necessary to keep the nation’s nuclear arsenal operating and safe, and to continue cutting-edge research at the nation’s nuclear labs. But critics say the nuclear program—run largely by private contractors and overseen by the NNSA, an arm of the Department of Energy (DOE)—has turned into a massive jobs program with duplicative functions.

A congressionally appointed panel, co-chaired by Norman Augustine, the retired CEO of Lockheed Martin (one of the contractors overseen by the NNSA), recently began studying a potential overhaul of the agency. Augustine told Congress this spring that the absence of day-to-day accountability and an ineffectual structure at the NNSA pose a national security risk. He described a “pervasive culture of tolerating the intolerable and accepting the unacceptable.”

DOE and NNSA officials agree problems exist. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said earlier this month that addressing the cost overruns, and also embarrassing security breaches at some facilities, is a top priority. He acknowledged some projects had seen “substantial cost overruns” and said he considers the review by the panel “a good chance to … have this dialogue and reach a conclusion.”

The nuclear labs are getting renewed scrutiny in light of across-the-board federal budget cuts and security lapses, such as an incident last year in Tennessee in which protesters cut through security fences, hung up banners and crime-scene tape, and hammered off a small chunk of a building inside the complex that is the nation’s central repository for bomb-grade uranium.

Thomas D’Agostino, who had led the agency since 2007, retired in January amid criticism of management mistakes related to the Tennessee break-in. The agency has had two interim administrators since then, and in August, President Barack Obama nominated retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz as its next head. Klotz is awaiting Senate confirmation.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Michael Cochrane
Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.

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