Nuclear stockpile maintenance deserves full attention

A highly critical audit of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex does not invite confidence in the agency’s ability to maintain our nuclear stockpile reliably.

The Department of Energy’s Inspector General report on National Nuclear Security Administration’s facilities — including Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories — details just how lax official record-keeping has been.

It’s not the first time the NNSA has failed the fat, lazy and incompetent test. Bloated, intractable and insular, it has been pilloried in various federal audits.

The DOE audit cited numerous instances of nuclear weapons designs that could not immediately be located, the use of parts that might not be the right ones for the weapons, and sheer waste — in one case components did not meet specifications causing “a 1-year delay in component production and additional costs of approximately $20-$25 million.”

The report also noted that 11 nuclear warheads delivered to the Navy in 2010 had to be returned because material used to prevent an electro-static discharge from accidentally setting off “the main charge of the weapon” had been damaged during production.

Auditors cited failures to obtain engineering evaluations to support waivers from parts specifications and lack of a “fully implemented supplier quality management program.”

There were a few bright spots in the audit. Sandia had only seven of 56 sampled parts that lacked proper evaluations. And LANL was able to locate all of the drawings and definitions for 24 plutonium “pits,” which are nuclear bomb triggers.

Still, the audit maintains that neither the NNSA nor its sites treated maintenance of original weapons design information as a priority. It said some “irreplaceable” nuclear weapons design material on microcfiche or film is degrading. Although the agency is moving to get most of the weapons definition materials digitized and “accessible for future needs,” this situation shouldn’t have been allowed to arise in the first place.

It shouldn’t have to be said, but organization and follow-through in the handling of classified nuclear designs should always be top priority. The audit sure makes it look like it has not been.

 

— Albuquerque Journal

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