Nuclear Weapons: Capabilities of DOE's Limited Life Component Program to Meet Operational Needs

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-03-05.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                 United States General Accounting Office

GAO              Report to the Committee on Armed
                 Services, U.S. Senate

March 1997
                 NUCLEAR WEAPONS
                 Capabilities of DOE’s
                 Limited Life
                 Component Program to
                 Meet Operational

                   United States
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20548

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division


                   March 5, 1997

                   The Honorable Strom Thurmond
                   The Honorable Carl Levin
                   Ranking Minority Member
                   Committee on Armed Services
                   United States Senate

                   The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for managing the nation’s
                   nuclear weapons stockpile, including a limited life components program.
                   That program involves the periodic replacement of four components that
                   have useful operating lives shorter than the expected life of a nuclear
                   weapon. If these components are not replaced within a specified time, the
                   weapon would eventually become inoperative.

                   The number and type of nuclear weapons to be managed by DOE for the
                   next 11 years are established by the Production and Planning Directive.
                   This directive is based on the Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Memorandum
                   prepared by DOE and the Department of Defense (DOD) and signed by the
                   President. It is used by DOE’s Albuquerque Operations Office to develop
                   production requirements, purchase requirements, and shipping schedules
                   for limited life components.

                   The current directive includes information and requirements for
                   (1) supplying limited life components for weapons in the active stockpile
                   (weapons that are currently operational)1 and (2) having the capability to
                   provide these components for weapons that are in the inactive stockpile,
                   some of which have been designated as weapons that could be reactivated
                   in the future. The Committee asked us to provide information on DOE’s
                   ability to provide limited life components for nuclear weapons in the
                   current active stockpile and the extent to which the components can be
                   supplied to weapons reactivated from the inactive stockpile.

                   DOE appears to be capable of providing limited life components for nuclear
Results in Brief   weapons in the nation’s active stockpile, as long as the size of the
                   stockpile does not significantly increase. DOE currently does not have
                   enough production capacity for certain key components if weapons from

                    Our discussion of the active stockpile includes a small number of weapons in the inactive stockpile
                   that are designated as replacements for weapons withdrawn from the active stockpile for quality
                   assurance tests. We included these weapons because DOE routinely replaces limited life components
                   in these weapons.

                   Page 1                                                         GAO/RCED-97-52 Nuclear Weapons

                       the inactive stockpile are reactivated. DOE’s Albuquerque Operations Office
                       has developed plans to expand production capacity of these key
                       components. This expansion, if completed on time, will allow DOE to meet
                       the Production and Planning Directive’s requirements by providing the
                       capacity to support weapons that may be reactivated. Initially, DOE
                       considered delaying the expansions by not funding them in fiscal year
                       1997. However, in October 1996, DOE directed its Albuquerque Operations
                       Office to make the expansions high-priority activities and to fund them
                       during fiscal year 1997.

                       The four different types of components that DOE considers to have limited
DOE’s Capability to    lives are gas generators, electrical power sources, tritium reservoirs, and
Provide Limited Life   neutron generators. Over the past few years, DOE has made major changes
Components             in how limited life components are acquired. Production facilities have
                       been moved to new locations, and old locations have been closed. Despite
                       this transition, DOE appears capable of meeting requirements for providing
                       limited life components for weapons in the active stockpile. However,
                       with the current production capacity, neutron generators and tritium
                       reservoirs cannot be provided for some weapons that could be reactivated.
                       DOE has plans to acquire the necessary capacity in time to service these
                       weapons should they be recalled to the active stockpile.

Gas Generators         Gas generators—pressure-generating devices that deploy parachutes in
                       some types of nuclear weapons—last about 20 years before needing to be
                       replaced. As in the past, DOE will purchase gas generators, which are not
                       classified components, from commercial sources. DOE appears capable of
                       supplying gas generators in sufficient quantities to service all nuclear
                       weapons requiring them.

                       According to DOE officials, only one type of nuclear weapon in the active
                       stockpile uses a gas generator. DOE has enough new gas generators in
                       inventory to conduct scheduled replacements until the end of fiscal year
                       1998. DOE also has some gas generators taken from retired weapons that
                       still have several years of useful life. Using these generators would allow
                       DOE to meet its scheduled replacements through the end of fiscal year
                       2000. To supply future gas generators, DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories
                       will continue to purchase from the same company it has been
                       using—Pacific Scientific. According to DOE and Pacific Scientific officials,
                       the commercial supplier has more than sufficient capacity to provide for
                       DOE’s projected needs for gas generators. In addition, DOE officials believe

                       Page 2                                          GAO/RCED-97-52 Nuclear Weapons

                           that, if needed, gas generators could be obtained from several other
                           commercial sources. As a result, it appears that over the next several years
                           DOE will not have a problem supplying gas generators for active weapons.

                           In addition, gas generators for weapons that may be reactivated should not
                           be a problem. Only one weapon that may be reactivated contains a gas
                           generator. DOE and Pacific Scientific officials told us that the commercial
                           supplier has sufficient capacity to provide these gas generators and needs
                           only a 12- to 18-month lead time to provide new gas generators.

                           DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories is currently studying a new propellant
                           for use in the gas generators. The old propellant is the part of the gas
                           generator that has the limited life. If the new propellant is successfully
                           developed, DOE will eventually replace all gas generators currently
                           contained in nuclear weapons with generators containing the new
                           propellant, which does not have a limited life.

Electrical Power Sources   Radioisotopic thermoelectric generators (RTG) are devices that use heat
                           from a radioactive material to provide electrical power for nuclear
                           weapons. In the past, DOE manufactured RTGs at its Los Alamos, New
                           Mexico; Pinellas, Florida; and Mound, Ohio facilities. Although Los Alamos
                           retains the capability to manufacture new RTGs, DOE has no plans to do so.
                           DOE believes that supplying RTGs or alternative power sources will not be a
                           problem for active or reactivated weapons for the next few years because
                           it plans to obtain alternative power sources commercially.

                           The Production and Planning Directive requires DOE to provide
                           replacement power sources for the one type of weapon in the active
                           stockpile that uses a RTG. While DOE has not recently needed to replace
                           RTGs, it plans to begin replacing them with commercially available
                           batteries in about 2001. To have batteries available at that time, DOE
                           intends to begin the acquisition process in February 1998.

                           DOE  officials told us that if batteries are not available in 1999 or 2000, the
                           Department will replace the expired RTGs with ones currently in inventory.
                           The RTGs in inventory were manufactured years ago for use in weapons
                           that never were built. Even though these RTGs have never been used, they
                           will need to be replaced within 5 or 6 years because of their age. DOE has
                           enough RTGs in inventory to support requirements until about 2004. At that
                           time, they will need to have commercially produced batteries available. No
                           weapons currently scheduled for possible reactivation have RTGs.

                           Page 3                                           GAO/RCED-97-52 Nuclear Weapons

                     Sandia National Laboratories is currently conducting a study of RTGs, their
                     projected design life, and replacement requirements. This study could
                     result in extending RTG life, thus delaying the need for replacements. The
                     results of the study are expected in February 1998.

Tritium Reservoirs   Tritium reservoirs are stainless steel vessels designed to contain tritium in
                     a nuclear weapon.2 The reservoir must be removed from a weapon
                     periodically and replaced with one containing fresh tritium because the
                     tritium decays at a rate of 5.5 percent per year and thus loses its
                     effectiveness. Once a reservoir is loaded with tritium, not only does the
                     tritium start to decay, but the tritium reservoir also starts to deteriorate.
                     As a result, a reservoir can be refilled only a limited number of times
                     (depending on the design of the reservoir) before it has to be replaced.
                     Tritium reservoirs had been manufactured at DOE’s Rocky Flats Plant near
                     Denver, Colorado, but in 1993, DOE transferred the mission to its facility in
                     Kansas City, Missouri. DOE appears capable of providing tritium reservoirs
                     for active weapons for the next several years. However, DOE will not be
                     able to provide tritium reservoirs for reactivation weapons unless current
                     capacity is doubled. DOE continually needs to replace tritium reservoirs. To
                     provide reservoirs during the movement of operations from Rocky Flats to
                     Kansas City, DOE had Rocky Flats preproduce reservoirs. DOE’s Kansas City
                     facility began producing reservoirs in 1995 and, in September 1996, the
                     first Kansas City-made reservoir was approved for use. Kansas City is now
                     in full production mode. This mode will allow DOE to service active
                     weapons according to current requirements contained in the Production
                     and Planning Directive.

                     The production capacity currently available at Kansas City is not sufficient
                     to service reactivated weapons. DOE studies have concluded that Kansas
                     City will need to substantially increase its production capacity and
                     preproduce some reservoirs to meet possible requirements for reactivated
                     weapons. DOE estimates that the expansion will have total costs of about
                     $9.4 million. It will be completed in fiscal year 2000. DOE officials believe
                     that completing this expansion on time will allow them to meet the
                     Production and Planning Directive’s requirements by providing the
                     capacity to service inactive weapons that may be reactivated.

                     In May and June 1996, DOE’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Defense
                     Programs considered delaying this expansion by not funding the activity in
                     the fiscal year 1997 budget. On September 16, 1996, the Albuquerque

                      Tritium is a gaseous radioactive isotope that is used to enhance the power of nuclear weapons.

                     Page 4                                                         GAO/RCED-97-52 Nuclear Weapons

                     Operations Office wrote to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Military
                     Applications and Stockpile Management, pointing out the conflict between
                     the budget and the Production and Planning Directive’s requirement that
                     DOE be prepared to provide reactivation weapons with limited life
                     components. On October 18, 1996, the Deputy Assistant Secretary sent a
                     memorandum to Albuquerque stating that DOE was committed to the
                     activity and directing that Albuquerque reallocate funds to support the
                     expansion. According to DOE Defense Programs officials, the expansion of
                     tritium reservoir production is now considered one of the highest
                     priorities for the Albuquerque Operations Office.

                     Finally, the Savannah River plant, where the reservoirs are filled, has
                     sufficient capacity to meet requirements for active and reactivated
                     weapons. The Replacement Tritium Facility is a relatively new building
                     which was completed in 1993 at a cost of $413 million. The facility was
                     sized to support a considerably larger nuclear weapons stockpile than
                     exists today. Although DOE has sufficient capacity, it will have to convert
                     an existing tritium loading line to enable it to handle a new type of
                     reservoir. This conversion, which will not be needed until at least 2002,
                     will cost about $250,000.

Neutron Generators   Neutron generators are timing devices that provide triggering pulses for
                     nuclear weapons. Neutron generators had been produced by DOE’s plant in
                     Pinellas, Florida. In 1993, the Department closed the Pinellas plant and
                     transferred production to Los Alamos and Sandia. It now appears that Los
                     Alamos and Sandia will be able to meet the current requirements for
                     servicing active weapons. These requirements should be met if the
                     facilities begin production on schedule and, in some cases, preproduce
                     some neutron generators. DOE will not, however, be able to provide
                     neutron generators for reactivated weapons unless current production
                     capacity is doubled.

                     DOE will not need to supply new neutron generators for nuclear weapons
                     until 2000 or 2001. Preparations for production at Los Alamos and Sandia
                     are currently on schedule and, if production begins on schedule in 1999,
                     DOE should be able to provide neutron generators for active weapons for
                     the next several years. However, DOE will not be able to meet the
                     requirements for neutron generators in reactivated weapons with the
                     current planned capacity. As a result, the Albuquerque Operations Office
                     developed plans to nearly double the production capability at Sandia and
                     Los Alamos. This expansion is expected to have total costs of about

                     Page 5                                          GAO/RCED-97-52 Nuclear Weapons

                     $17.8 million. It will be completed in fiscal year 2000. DOE officials believe
                     that completing this expansion on time will allow them to meet the
                     Production and Planning Directive’s requirements by providing the
                     capacity to service inactive weapons that may be reactivated.

                     As with tritium reservoirs, DOE’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for
                     Defense Programs initially considered not funding the expansion in the
                     fiscal year 1997 budget. However, on October 18, 1996, DOE instructed that
                     the expansion be funded. DOE headquarters officials informed us that
                     expansion of DOE’s capability to manufacture neutron generators is now
                     also one of the Albuquerque Operations Office’s highest priorities.

                     DOE’s program to provide limited life components for the nation’s nuclear
Observations         weapons is a critical part of stockpile maintenance. If limited life
                     components are not or cannot be replaced on schedule, the reliability of
                     the weapons could be adversely affected—even to the point of some
                     weapons becoming nonoperational. It appears that DOE will be able to
                     service active weapons for the next several years, assuming that
                     (1) commercial vendors can supply gas generators and (2) DOE completes
                     research on the operational life of RTGs and battery design studies and
                     finds a suitable commercial battery vendor. However, DOE does not
                     currently have the required capability to provide tritium reservoirs and
                     neutron generators for weapons in the inactive stockpile that may be
                     reactivated. While initially unfunded, projects to expand production have
                     recently been placed on a high priority. In our view, on the basis of the
                     number of nuclear weapons planned for the current and future stockpile,
                     DOE’s continued commitment to these expansion plans for the limited life
                     component program is essential if the nuclear weapons stockpile is to be
                     maintained in accordance with the existing Production and Planning

                     We provided a draft of this report to DOE for its review and comment. We
Agency Comments      met with officials from DOE’s Office of Military Applications and Stockpile
and Our Evaluation   Management and its Albuquerque Operations Office, who agreed with the
                     contents of this report. The full text of DOE’s comments is included as
                     appendix I.

                     Our objectives were to provide information on DOE’s ability to provide
Scope and            limited life components for nuclear weapons in the current active

                     Page 6                                           GAO/RCED-97-52 Nuclear Weapons

stockpile and the extent to which the components can be supplied to
weapons reactivated from the inactive stockpile. To determine if DOE could
provide limited life components for nuclear weapons, we obtained
schedules showing the requirements for replacing limited life components
and compared those requirements with DOE’s production capabilities and
planned production schedules. We discussed this data with DOE officials
responsible for the limited life component program, with representatives
of the contractors that operate DOE’s limited life component production
facilities, and with the company that supplies gas generators to DOE. We
conducted our review from November 1996 through January 1997 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

As arranged with your offices, unless you publicly announce its contents
earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until 10 days after the
date of this report. At that time, we will send copies of the report to the
Secretary of Energy; the Secretary of Defense; and the Director, Office of
Management and Budget. We will also make copies available to others on

If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please call me at
(202) 512-3841. Major contributors to this report include William F. Fenzel,
Assistant Director; Kenneth E. Lightner Jr., Evaluator; and William M.
Seay, Evaluator.

Allen Li
Associate Director, Energy, Resources,
  and Science Issues

Page 7                                           GAO/RCED-97-52 Nuclear Weapons
Appendix I

Comments From the Department of Energy

(141009)     Page 8           GAO/RCED-97-52 Nuclear Weapons
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