Future nuclear weapons programs will be delayed if the Department of Energy is not able to produce depleted-uranium-niobium alloy ingots in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in the next three years, according to a report the Government Accountability Office published this week.

“[A]ny delays beyond that will affect the current schedules of these programs,” Congress’ investigative arm wrote in the report.

The two DoE weapons programs slated to begin production after October 2023 are the W80-4 cruise missile warhead for the planned Long Range Standoff Weapon and the W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile for the planned Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The agency’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) runs the civilian nuclear-weapons portfolio.

The NNSA has not produced depleted-uranium-niobium alloyed parts for nuclear weapons “in over a decade,” and now must restart that “complicated, resource-intensive process” and produce new ingots at the Y-12 Naitonal Security Complex by October 2023, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said.

Congress required the GAO to investigate the NNSA’s plans for producing the depleted-uranium-niobium components, and other depleted-uranium weapons parts, as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. 

The depleted-uranium-niobium components “‘have some of the highest costs and longest lead times of any components in the nuclear stockpile’” GAO quoted NNSA as saying. Manufacturing such components involves restarting existing furnaces at Y-12, or procuring new ones, among other things. 

The GAO said that the NNSA started “taking steps” to procure needed equipment for niobium alloying in June, and that the agency itself has not lost any schedule slack in the program due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, now in its seventh month.

“However, the [niobium] restart also relies on vendors for supplies and some development activities, and the pandemic’s effects on those vendors could delay the restart in the coming months,” GAO wrote. “NNSA is in the process of analyzing the potential effects.”

On the other hand, the depleted uranium side of the effort appears to be moving along, GAO reported.

Early this year, the NNSA decided to produce depleted uranium for nuclear weapons programs by adding a fourth process line to a legacy nuclear-weapons cleanup at the Portsmouth Site in Piketon, Ohio: a former gaseous diffusion plant that DoE’s Office of Environmental Management is preparing to tear down.

It will cost the NNSA between roughly $40 million and $50 million to build a depleted uranium conversion line at Portsmouth, and almost another $30 million annually to operate it, according to the GAO’s report. A commercial vendor, to be selected by Y-12 prime contractor Consolidated Nuclear Security, would operate the process line through 2036 or so, the NNSA has said.

NNSA is passing the money to actually build the new line through Environmental Management’s depleted uranium hexafluoride conversion contract with Mid-America Conversion Services: an Atkins-led team that also includes Fluor [FLR] and Westinghouse [WX].

The environmental office is preparing the depleted uranium for disposal as waste, but NNSA wants to take roughly 1,155 depleted uranium hexafluoride cylinders from the Portsmouth Site and the Paducah Site in Kentucky to make depleted uranium tetrafluoride that will eventually become hi-purity depleted uranium metal for weapons.

NNSA’s depleted uranium program is among those pinched badly by Congress’ failure to pass federal spending bills this year. The agency requested more than $130 million for depleted uranium in 2021, but Congress has held federal budgets to 2020 levels for nearly the whole first quarter of the year, leaving the program with the annualized equivalent of around $60 million, GAO said.

The NNSA did not make any lengthy comments about GAO’s report, as the agency sometimes does at the watchdog’s invitation. NNSA’s feedback this time around were limited to technical comments that GAO folded into its report.