U.S. Nuclear-Arms Cost Estimate Jumps Up $27 Billion

Technicians perform maintenance on a W-76 nuclear warhead. An 18-year cost estimate for U.S. nuclear-arms operations has jumped up more than $27 billion, the congressional Government Accountability Office said.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
Dec. 13, 2013, 6:02 a.m.

An 18-year spend­ing out­look for U.S. nuc­le­ar arms has shot up by $27.1 bil­lion, and costs could rise fur­ther still, con­gres­sion­al aud­it­ors said this week.

In­vest­ig­at­ors found the in­crease by com­par­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s latest cost es­tim­ate for main­tain­ing and up­dat­ing U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons over a set peri­od — fisc­al years 2014 through 2031 — to the U.S. es­tim­ate from two years ago for the same time­frame, ac­cord­ing to a Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice re­port re­leased Wed­nes­day.

The Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion blamed the up­tick from in part on a change in its cal­cu­la­tion meth­od. The agency — a semi­autonom­ous arm of the En­ergy De­part­ment — noted that its pro­jec­tion from fisc­al 2012 re­lied on out-of-date data based on the now-de­funct Re­li­able Re­place­ment War­head pro­gram, aud­it­ors wrote in the as­sess­ment.

GAO aud­it­ors said a sched­ule ad­just­ment also con­trib­uted to the cost jump, which boos­ted an­ti­cip­ated stock­pile ex­pendit­ures for the 18-year peri­od from $46 bil­lion to $73.1 bil­lion. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion moved up plans to be­gin mod­ern­iz­ing nuc­le­ar war­heads for the Air Launched Cruise Mis­sile sev­en years soon­er — in 2024 in­stead of 2031 — bring­ing more of the as­so­ci­ated costs in­to the time range un­der scru­tiny.

The es­tim­ate for over­all NNSA spend­ing dur­ing the same peri­od in­creased by just $19 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to GAO aud­it­ors. They vari­ation, they wrote, is due to de­creases in the agency’s pro­jec­ted spend­ing on oth­er agency activ­it­ies, such as main­ten­ance of the nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al’s sup­port­ing in­fra­struc­ture.

They noted, though, that the agency’s es­tim­ate leaves out “most of the budget es­tim­ates” for two pricey ini­ti­at­ives: con­struct­ing a new en­riched-urani­um pro­cessing plant in Ten­ness­ee, and sus­tain­ing plutoni­um cap­ab­il­it­ies long tied to a pro­posed fa­cil­ity that now faces can­cel­la­tion.

“NNSA plans to con­struct these fa­cil­it­ies or al­tern­at­ives to the fa­cil­it­ies and, as a res­ult, NNSA’s budget es­tim­ates for the in­fra­struc­ture area are not fully aligned with its mod­ern­iz­a­tion plans and likely un­der­es­tim­ate the amount of fund­ing that will be needed in fu­ture years.

The re­port notes sev­er­al factors that could fur­ther shift NNSA cost es­tim­ates in com­ing years, in­clud­ing the agency’s fail­ure to ac­count in its pro­jec­tions to date for budget cuts man­dated un­der the 2011 Budget Con­trol Act. Those “se­quest­ra­tion” re­duc­tions would crimp nuc­le­ar-weapons spend­ing if they re­main in place, the doc­u­ment says.

Its au­thors noted two oth­er vari­ables that could in­crease spend­ing: a pos­sible rise in ex­penses from con­tract­or re­tire­ment funds, and “cost sav­ings” built in­to budget es­tim­ates without full as­sess­ments of how to achieve them.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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