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Fine Print: A disconnect in evaluating the nuclear weapons labs

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The distance between Washington and reality is always hard to measure.

But the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) for the first time has released performance evaluations of the nation’s eight nuclear weapons laboratories and production facilities. Until now, the reviews were held internally. The fiscal 2011 reviews let us measure what went on in the nuclear weapons programs against what’s said about them in the nation’s capital.

The 2011 review evaluated each facility in the nuclear weapons complex.

Let’s examine the one that looked at how Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), the company established to run the Los Alamos National Laboratory, carried out NNSA objectives for 2011.

“NNSA specifies ‘what’ it wants rather than dictating to the contractor ‘how’ to get it done,” according to the report.

The reviews are important for many reasons, but one critical one is money. Built into the contract are incentive fees awarded based on results of these performance reviews.

How much? LANS, the Los Alamos management group — made up of the regents of the University of California, Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, and URS Energy and Construction — got a fixed-fee award of $26 million for running the lab. There was a pool of $60.7 million more in what are termed “at-risk fees” to be earned by LANS based on performance ratings. Also, a very good performance can add an additional year to the contract.

Because LANS was found to have had “another strong performance year,” it received an additional $50.1 million, or 83 percent, of the at-risk fees, plus the additional contract year.

The one area in which LANS was awarded 100 percent of its incentive fee, some $6.1 million, was in major weapons programs carried on with other facilities in the national complex. Two of these were programs to extend the lifespan of warheads of deployed weapons — the W-76 warhead for the Trident sub-launched intercontinental ballistic missile and the B-61, the tactical nuclear bomb deployed with NATO forces in Europe.

The W-76 award, $1.1 million, was for ensuring that the production program remained on the contract schedule. The W-76 is the most numerous warhead in the U.S. stockpile. Modernization of 800 W-76 warheads began in 2000 under the Bill Clinton administration; in 2005, the George W. Bush White House increased the number to 2,000.

The W-76 update stirred debate in Washington when the Obama administration’s budget for the NNSA called for slowing that work so more money could be devoted to B-61 modernization. At a March 14 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) asked NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino: Was it true that the Obama budget “would delay the completion of the W-76 life extension program by four years and that the Navy in response has publicly expressed concern over that?”

D’Agostino replied that the production change still met “the Navy’s operational requirements.”

Sessions also said the Obama budget would “result in a two-year delay in the B-61 life extension program, moving the first production unit from 2017 to 2019.” Again, D’Agostino replied that the Defense Department supported the change. LANS also received a $1 million award for completing the life extension study for the B-61.

LANS also received an award, for just $117,639, for completing the first phase of the life extension program for the W-78, the warhead on land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

LANS was less successful with the controversial facilities associated with carrying out its multi-year plan to replace its old Chemistry Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility with a newer two-building complex to handle work with plutonium as well as produce “pits” into the next decade. “Pits” are carefully manufactured metallic, plutonium spheres that when surrounded by high explosives become the trigger for thermonuclear weapons.

The first CMR construction, approved in 2005, was for a $164 million Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building, which was to open this year. LANS could have gotten $700,000 for meeting a goal of completing the building ahead of schedule in 2011 and having it ready for occupancy early this year. Instead, it got $176,000 because, the report said, there are still concerns about “settlement costs” and “deficiencies” in sensitive equipment.

It was a similar story with further developing plans for the second building, a multibillion-dollar Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR), which many viewed as necessary for producing plutonium pit triggers. The Bush administration saw the need for some 125 pits a year as the older pits decayed and became less reliable. Others, including many arms control experts, argued that the nation already had about 5,000 pits in strategic reserve, with an additional 10,000 in surplus. Also, the number of deployed warheads is to drop to 1,550 by 2018 under the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.

Some key Republicans in 2010 made guaranteed funding for the CMRR by the Obama administration a condition of their support of the START pact. In Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget, however, some $1.8 billion for CMRR was pushed to 2017.

At a hearing last month, Sessions called that move “troubling,” remarking on the NNSA’s “decision to abandon this cornerstone effort.” He also said reusing pits may seem attractive but noted that there have been no studies of its long-term feasibility.

Meanwhile, LANS got only $389,000 of the $703,000 it could have received for its CMRR design work in 2011. But the consortium was praised for exceeding its goal to produce plutonium oxide for use in fuel for nuclear power reactors. LANS got the plutonium from disassembled pits — an NNSA program to safely dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium.

Reality vs. Washington: The NNSA is focused on function, while some members of Congress appear more worried about the timing and politics of funding.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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