By George Lobsenz

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) effort to develop a consolidation plan for the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons complex has been hobbled by the failure of the Defense Department and NNSA to set clear warhead requirements for the future, congressional auditors told a House panel Thursday.

The testimony by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee also said that one contractor study had suggested that more aggressive downsizing of the complex might not be much more expensive than the moderate consolidation plan that has been put out for public comment by NNSA, the semi-autonomous DOE weapons agency.

However, the problems NNSA is facing due to the lack of a clear nuclear weapons stockpile strategy were emphatically underlined not only by GAO, but by C. Paul Robinson, former director of Sandia National Laboratories.

“[I]n light of the current state of confusion in our [nuclear weapons] policy, it is a small miracle that NNSA was able to produce a [preferred plan] for complex transformation at all,” Robinson said in his written testimony to the subcommittee.

And even with NNSA’s issuance of its preferred plan, said Gene Aloise, director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment Division, the inability of the Pentagon and NNSA to decide on size and composition of the future stockpile had all but frozen key elements of NNSA’s complex downsizing plan.

For example, he said NNSA in October 2006 had proposed building a consolidated plutonium center at one DOE site that would be able to produce 125 pits per year. However, due to additional stockpile reductions announced by President Bush in December 2007, NNSA then said that instead of the new plutonium center, it would upgrade existing pit production capability at Los Alamos National Laboratory so it could produce up to 80 pits per year.

“Although Department of Defense (DoD) officials agreed to support NNSA’s plan, these officials also stated that future changes to stockpile size, military requirements and risk factors may ultimately lead to a revised, larger rate of production,” Aloise said in written testimony. “This uncertainty has delayed NNSA in issuing final plans for its future pit manufacturing capability.”

NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said his agency’s ability to plan for consolidation also was badly hampered by some congressional committees’ refusal to endorse the construction of the replacement facility for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility at Los Alamos, which he said was crucial to assuring analytical capability for stockpile stewardship and plutonium science.

Without that project, he said, “I know we are not on a path to sustainability” on plutonium operations.

However, some members of Congress have questioned the CMR replacement facility on the grounds that NNSA has not set a firm course on complex downsizing, making it premature to move forward on a project expected to cost more than $2 billion.

In addition, House and Senate appropriators both have suggested that NNSA is not being aggressive enough in its downsizing plan given the huge warhead stockpile cuts that have been ordered by the president.

Notably, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee, at an April hearing questioned why NNSA was not planning to close any of its eight weapons sites as part of the consolidation plan.

Dorgan also revealed that the White House Office of Management and Budget had raised similar concerns and ordered independent studies of NNSA’s downsizing plan. He further said that those studies had found there could be “economic benefits” to moving the uranium processing operations now conducted at the Y-12 plant in Tennessee to another NNSA site.

D’Agostino disputed that finding at the April 16 hearing, but said NNSA was conducting another round of studies on Y-12 and other consolidation options. He also noted that NNSA was achieving significant cost savings by greatly shrinking the footprint of its eight sites and tearing down hundreds of obsolete facilities.

But leaders of the House energy and water appropriations subcommittee have pressed NNSA more intently for much more consolidation, citing studies done for the agency suggesting long-term cost savings might be greatest if all weapons operations were located at one site.

D’Agostino and other NNSA officials have rejected that as unrealistic, pointing to huge facility closure costs; the difficulty of relocating highly skilled weapons plant workers or finding and training new ones at new locations; and unacceptable disruption of critical weapons operations at numerous sites.

However, Aloise in his testimony to the House panel Thursday revealed that a consultant to NNSA had submitted a study suggesting that consolidation at one site–Los Alamos– would cost little more than NNSA’s preferred plan.

The GAO official said the contractor, identified as TechSource Inc., LMI Government Consulting, in September 2007 had given NNSA a range of cost estimates for more than 10 different complex downsizing alternatives.

“For example, the contractor estimated that the cost of NNSA’s preferred action would be approximately $79 billion over the period 2007 through 2060,” Aloise said in his written testimony. “This option was also determined to be the least expensive.”

However, Aloise added: “The contractor’s estimate for a consolidated nuclear production center–another alternative that would consolidate plutonium, uranium, and weapons assembly and disassembly at one site–totaled $80 billion over the same period.”

But while the cost of those alternatives differed by only $1 billion over 53 years, Aloise noted they were based on different assumptions. For example, NNSA’s preferred approach assumed pit production capability of 80 pits per year while the consolidated center assumed 125 pits a year.

In addition, Aloise said the contractor emphasized its cost estimates were not based on any specific conceptual designs for the consolidated center, and thus should not be used to predict budget-level project costs.

In other testimony at the hearing:

Darrel Kohlhorst, head of Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12 LLC, which operates Y-12 for NNSA, said relocating Y-12 operations to another NNSA site would entail too much cost and operational disruption. “Studies and analyses performed to date indicate that Y-12 represents the least-cost, lowest risk approach for transforming NNSA’s uranium mission,” he said.

D’Agostino said NNSA was expanding a project called the Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System (ARIES) to assure a continuous feed of surplus weapons plutonium to the mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant now being built at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. He said ARIES was needed because of delays in the development of another facility, the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility, which is supposed to extract plutonium from warheads for conversion to MOX fuel for reactors.

Stephen Younger, head of National Security Technologies LLC, the Northrop Grumman [NOC]-led contractor that operates the Nevada Test Site for NNSA, suggested more sensitive weapons operations be moved to the Device Assembly Facility at his site, which he said had 40,000 square feet of nuclear-certified space available and was one of the most robust and secure buildings in NNSA’s weapons complex.