Fine Print: Nuclear Program Issues Lead to Congressional Attention

A Trident II rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral. The nuclear warhead on the Navy's Trident II faces updating issues.
A Trident II rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral. The nuclear warhead on the Navy's Trident II faces updating issues. (By Phil Sandlin -- Associated Press)
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By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Concern over the U.S. strategic nuclear stockpile, illustrated by problems with a classified material called "Fogbank," has triggered quiet maneuverings on Capitol Hill related to negotiations to extend the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

That treaty expires at year's end.

"Fogbank" plays a key part in the W-76, the nuclear warhead on the Navy's Trident II sub-launched intercontinental ballistic missile and the country's most numerous and important strategic nuclear weapons. Initially deployed in 1978, about 3,000 were produced with a planned 30-year life. In 2000, planning began for refurbishing about 2,000 W-78 warheads under the ongoing life-extension program being used to upgrade existing U.S. nuclear systems.

Initial delivery of the reconditioned W-76 warheads was to begin in 2007 and take nine years. But according to a March 2009 Government Accountability Report, the program ran into a problem -- "Fogbank." It turned out that there initially was no replacement for this key element of the W-76, and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) "had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency," according to the GAO.

In 2000, NNSA considered a cheaper material but dropped that idea because, in part, the Los Alamos National Laboratory's "computer models and simulations were not sophisticated enough to provide conclusive evidence that the alternate material would function exactly the same as Fogbank," the GAO said.

Then followed a series of apparent blunders. Though remanufacturing Fogbank was recognized as a high-risk program, a determination was made to build a new Fogbank production facility while, at the same time, using an existing pilot plant to test the manufacturing process. There were safety issues with the new facility, the pilot plant was minimally utilized, and when production began a year behind schedule, the Fogbank produced was unusable. In 2007, NNSA decided to reverse itself, and with a $23 million initiative, try to produce an alternative material while pushing ahead with making new Fogbank.

The current plan is to get the alternative product certified by the end of this year and use it if additional problems develop as the Fogbank facility goes into full-scale production.

The Fogbank experience showed all the weaknesses in the U.S. nuclear program that critics have harped on for years -- potential failures within refurbishing systems, lack of a trained nuclear workforce and lack of modernized facilities.

With that background in mind, on July 23, a bipartisan group of six senior senators wrote President Obama. The group, which included John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) -- chairmen of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively -- and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) and John McCain (Ariz.) -- the two ranking Republicans -- said that when the new START treaty is submitted for ratification, it should be accompanied by a 10-year funding estimate to support enhancement of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. They also want it to include cost figures, beginning with the fiscal 2011 budget, that show how much will be available to modernize the aging nuclear weapons manufacturing complex and to maintain a competent workforce able to create new weapons, if necessary.

Finally, they want numbers to prove that the administration is prepared to maintain the nuclear weapon delivery systems -- strategic submarines, sub- and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers, all of which need replacements.

Triggering the letter were competing amendments passed in the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2010 Defense Authorization Bill. The House language, written by Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), would prohibit use of funds to reduce strategic nuclear weapons under a new treaty with Russia -- unless the president certified there were sufficient verification measures and that neither U.S. missile defense systems nor conventional offensive weapons were under limits. It would also have to be determined that the U.S. nuclear weapons programs were adequately funded.

The Senate amendment, originated by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) but modified by colleagues, is much less harsh. It calls for Obama to provide a report to Congress that includes the information contained in the July 23 letter.

In a floor statement last Wednesday, Kerry said, "I would encourage the administration to see that requirement not as a burden, but as an opportunity." He applauded Senate colleagues for not adopting the House approach, which he described as "trying to bar U.S. compliance with a treaty before the treaty has even been negotiated."

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