Watchdog: U.S. Struggles to Track Nuclear-Arms Design Records

Technicians perform maintenance on W-76 nuclear warhead. The United States has failed to keep an adequate paper trail from the assembly and maintenance of individual bombs in its nuclear arsenal, an Energy Department auditor said in a report issued last week.  
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
March 31, 2014, 10:55 a.m.

A U.S. En­ergy De­part­ment in­vest­ig­at­or has lashed nuc­le­ar-arms of­fices for fail­ing to keep a de­tailed pa­per trail of how they build and care for each bomb.

The Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion has not con­sist­ently tracked each of the thou­sands of nuc­le­ar weapons un­der its charge with a com­pre­hens­ive file of “draw­ings, spe­cific­a­tions, en­gin­eer­ing au­thor­iz­a­tions, man­u­fac­tur­ing re­cords” and oth­er doc­u­ments from its as­sembly and main­ten­ance, says a new re­port by the En­ergy De­part­ment’s in­spect­or gen­er­al.

The miss­ing data ex­poses the U.S. nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al to an ar­ray of un­ne­ces­sary costs and risks, Gregory Fried­man said his team had found.

In one case, of­fi­cials in­cor­rectly ap­proved two com­pon­ents to be ad­ded to a vari­ant of the W-76 nuc­le­ar war­head. The er­ror, they said, cost between $20 mil­lion and $25 mil­lion, and held up pre­par­a­tion of new parts by an ex­tra 12 months.

The United States nev­er “treated the main­ten­ance of ori­gin­al nuc­le­ar weapons [re­cords] as a pri­or­ity” dur­ing or after the Cold War, ac­cord­ing to the March 26 as­sess­ment. The aud­it­ors ar­gued, though, that “re­cap­tur­ing the de­part­ment’s ori­gin­al nuc­le­ar weapons data in a con­fig­ur­able format can po­ten­tially save tens of mil­lions of dol­lars.”

The re­port also warns that lax con­trols on the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar-arms re­cords left an open­ing for pos­sible saboteurs to tamper with arms designs.

In a pos­sible vi­ol­a­tion of En­ergy De­part­ment rules, Los Alam­os Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory gran­ted about 30 design per­son­nel ac­cess to sens­it­ive design in­form­a­tion, “re­gard­less of wheth­er they were as­signed to a nuc­le­ar-weapon pro­ject,” aud­it­ors wrote.

Ac­cord­ing to the New Mex­ico fa­cil­ity’s ad­min­is­trat­ors, re­strict­ing the in­form­a­tion fur­ther would not help se­cur­ity, and “they be­lieved that their in­tern­al pro­cesses were more ef­fi­cient.”

En­ergy De­part­ment of­fi­cials agreed with the in­vest­ig­at­ors’ calls for re­cord-keep­ing up­dates.

“Up­grade re­quire­ments con­tin­ue to be iden­ti­fied and an ac­quis­i­tion strategy will be de­term­ined in [fisc­al year] 2015,” the re­port states.

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