The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has improved oversight of contracts and operations since last year, but the semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency could stand to do more, the Government Accountability Office said this week in its annual update on high-dollar, “high-risk” issues.

The NNSA “has continued to show leadership commitment to improving contract and project management,” the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) said in the latest High Risk Series report.

Key for the NNSA going forward is ensuring that the integrated schedule in development for producing pits — the fissile, plutonium triggers of thermonuclear weapons — complies with best practices, providing better schedule estimates and enacting management controls and coordination of programs and activities. The NNSA is on the hook by federal law to make 80 pits a year by 2030 using planned facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. The pits will initially be for W87-1 warheads intended for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent: the replacement for the Minuteman III silo-based intercontinental ballistic missile.

GAO also dinged NNSA for failing to fill by December 2020 some 200 new federal staff positions Congress allowed it to create in 2019. The agency requested permission to increase its headcount to meet what it characterized as critical unmet needs. 

With four nuclear-weapons refurbs on its plate this decade — or five, depending on how quickly the Joe Biden administration allows the agency to develop the next-generation W93 submarine-launched warhead — the NNSA is staring down a workload heavier than any it has had since the end of the Cold War.

One of those refurbs, the W80-4 cruise-missile warhead life-extension program, got some heat in GAO’s latest report. 

The congressional watchdog said the NNSA’s insistence on cranking out a first production unit of the warhead by 2025 “may unrealistically constrain the program’s schedule and introduce unnecessary risks.” GAO did acknowledge in July that the agency’s preliminary cost estimates for W80-4 substantially met the criteria for a reliable cost estimate.

The NNSA estimates W80-4 will cost about $11.2 billion from 2019 through 2031 to build all the W80-4 warheads needed for the new cruise missile. The Air Force plans to buy about 1,000 missiles.