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Nuclear Weapons: Capabilities of DOE's Limited Life Component Program to Meet Operational Needs

(Letter Report, 03/05/97, GAO/RCED-97-52).

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the
Department of Energy's (DOE) ability to provide limited life components
for nuclear weapons in the current active stockpile and the extent to
which the components can be supplied to weapons reactivated from the
inactive stockpile.

GAO noted that: (1) DOE appears to be capable of providing limited life
components for nuclear weapons in the nation's active stockpile, as long
as the size of the stockpile does not significantly increase; (2) DOE
currently does not have enough production capacity for certain key
components if weapons from the inactive stockpile are reactivated; (3)
DOE's Albuquerque Operations Office has developed plans to expand
production capacity of these key components; (4) this expansion, if
completed on time, will allow DOE to meet the Production and Planning
Directive's requirements by providing the capacity to support weapons
that may be reactivated; (5) initially, DOE considered delaying the
expansions by not funding them in fiscal year (FY) 1997; and (6)
however, in October 1996, DOE directed its Albuquerque Operations Office
to make the expansions high-priority activities and to fund them during
FY 1997.

--------------------------- Indexing Terms -----------------------------

 REPORTNUM:  RCED-97-52
     TITLE:  Nuclear Weapons: Capabilities of DOE's Limited Life 
             Component Program to Meet Operational Needs
      DATE:  03/05/97
   SUBJECT:  Nuclear weapons
             Maintenance (upkeep)
             Spare parts
             Atomic energy defense activities
             Nuclear weapons plants
             Federal procurement
             Commercial products
             Planning
IDENTIFIER:  DOE Nuclear Weapons Limited Life Components Program
             DOE Nuclear Weapons Production and Planning Directive
             
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Cover
================================================================ COVER


Report to the Committee on Armed Services, U.S.  Senate

March 1997

NUCLEAR WEAPONS - CAPABILITIES OF
DOE'S LIMITED LIFE COMPONENT
PROGRAM TO MEET OPERATIONAL NEEDS

GAO/RCED-97-52

Nuclear Weapons

(141009)


Abbreviations
=============================================================== ABBREV

  DOE -
  DOD -
  RTG -

Letter
=============================================================== LETTER


B-276096

March 5, 1997

The Honorable Strom Thurmond
Chairman
The Honorable Carl Levin
Ranking Minority Member
Committee on Armed Services
United States Senate

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for managing the
nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, including a limited life
components program.  That program involves the periodic replacement
of four components that have useful operating lives shorter than the
expected life of a nuclear weapon.  If these components are not
replaced within a specified time, the weapon would eventually become
inoperative. 

The number and type of nuclear weapons to be managed by DOE for the
next 11 years are established by the Production and Planning
Directive.  This directive is based on the Nuclear Weapons Stockpile
Memorandum prepared by DOE and the Department of Defense (DOD) and
signed by the President.  It is used by DOE's Albuquerque Operations
Office to develop production requirements, purchase requirements, and
shipping schedules for limited life components. 

The current directive includes information and requirements for (1)
supplying limited life components for weapons in the active stockpile
(weapons that are currently operational)\1 and (2) having the
capability to provide these components for weapons that are in the
inactive stockpile, some of which have been designated as weapons
that could be reactivated in the future.  The Committee asked us to
provide information on DOE's ability to provide limited life
components for nuclear weapons in the current active stockpile and
the extent to which the components can be supplied to weapons
reactivated from the inactive stockpile. 


--------------------
\1 Our discussion of the active stockpile includes a small number of
weapons in the inactive stockpile that are designated as replacements
for weapons withdrawn from the active stockpile for quality assurance
tests.  We included these weapons because DOE routinely replaces
limited life components in these weapons. 


   RESULTS IN BRIEF
------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :1

DOE appears to be capable of providing limited life components for
nuclear weapons in the nation's active stockpile, as long as the size
of the stockpile does not significantly increase.  DOE currently does
not have enough production capacity for certain key components if
weapons from the inactive stockpile are reactivated.  DOE's
Albuquerque Operations Office has developed plans to expand
production capacity of these key components.  This expansion, if
completed on time, will allow DOE to meet the Production and Planning
Directive's requirements by providing the capacity to support weapons
that may be reactivated.  Initially, DOE considered delaying the
expansions by not funding them in fiscal year 1997.  However, in
October 1996, DOE directed its Albuquerque Operations Office to make
the expansions high-priority activities and to fund them during
fiscal year 1997. 


   DOE'S CAPABILITY TO PROVIDE
   LIMITED LIFE COMPONENTS
------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :2

The four different types of components that DOE considers to have
limited lives are gas generators, electrical power sources, tritium
reservoirs, and neutron generators.  Over the past few years, DOE has
made major changes in how limited life components are acquired. 
Production facilities have been moved to new locations, and old
locations have been closed.  Despite this transition, DOE appears
capable of meeting requirements for providing limited life components
for weapons in the active stockpile.  However, with the current
production capacity, neutron generators and tritium reservoirs cannot
be provided for some weapons that could be reactivated.  DOE has
plans to acquire the necessary capacity in time to service these
weapons should they be recalled to the active stockpile. 


      GAS GENERATORS
---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :2.1

Gas generators--pressure-generating devices that deploy parachutes in
some types of nuclear weapons--last about 20 years before needing to
be replaced.  As in the past, DOE will purchase gas generators, which
are not classified components, from commercial sources.  DOE appears
capable of supplying gas generators in sufficient quantities to
service all nuclear weapons requiring them. 

According to DOE officials, only one type of nuclear weapon in the
active stockpile uses a gas generator.  DOE has enough new gas
generators in inventory to conduct scheduled replacements until the
end of fiscal year 1998.  DOE also has some gas generators taken from
retired weapons that still have several years of useful life.  Using
these generators would allow DOE to meet its scheduled replacements
through the end of fiscal year 2000.  To supply future gas
generators, DOE's Sandia National Laboratories will continue to
purchase from the same company it has been using--Pacific Scientific. 
According to DOE and Pacific Scientific officials, the commercial
supplier has more than sufficient capacity to provide for DOE's
projected needs for gas generators.  In addition, DOE officials
believe that, if needed, gas generators could be obtained from
several other commercial sources.  As a result, it appears that over
the next several years DOE will not have a problem supplying gas
generators for active weapons. 

In addition, gas generators for weapons that may be reactivated
should not be a problem.  Only one weapon that may be reactivated
contains a gas generator.  DOE and Pacific Scientific officials told
us that the commercial supplier has sufficient capacity to provide
these gas generators and needs only a 12- to 18-month lead time to
provide new gas generators. 

DOE's Sandia National Laboratories is currently studying a new
propellant for use in the gas generators.  The old propellant is the
part of the gas generator that has the limited life.  If the new
propellant is successfully developed, DOE will eventually replace all
gas generators currently contained in nuclear weapons with generators
containing the new propellant, which does not have a limited life. 


      ELECTRICAL POWER SOURCES
---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :2.2

Radioisotopic thermoelectric generators (RTG) are devices that use
heat from a radioactive material to provide electrical power for
nuclear weapons.  In the past, DOE manufactured RTGs at its Los
Alamos, New Mexico; Pinellas, Florida; and Mound, Ohio facilities. 
Although Los Alamos retains the capability to manufacture new RTGs,
DOE has no plans to do so.  DOE believes that supplying RTGs or
alternative power sources will not be a problem for active or
reactivated weapons for the next few years because it plans to obtain
alternative power sources commercially. 

The Production and Planning Directive requires DOE to provide
replacement power sources for the one type of weapon in the active
stockpile that uses a RTG.  While DOE has not recently needed to
replace RTGs, it plans to begin replacing them with commercially
available batteries in about 2001.  To have batteries available at
that time, DOE intends to begin the acquisition process in February
1998. 

DOE officials told us that if batteries are not available in 1999 or
2000, the Department will replace the expired RTGs with ones
currently in inventory.  The RTGs in inventory were manufactured
years ago for use in weapons that never were built.  Even though
these RTGs have never been used, they will need to be replaced within
5 or 6 years because of their age.  DOE has enough RTGs in inventory
to support requirements until about 2004.  At that time, they will
need to have commercially produced batteries available.  No weapons
currently scheduled for possible reactivation have RTGs. 

Sandia National Laboratories is currently conducting a study of RTGs,
their projected design life, and replacement requirements.  This
study could result in extending RTG life, thus delaying the need for
replacements.  The results of the study are expected in February
1998. 


      TRITIUM RESERVOIRS
---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :2.3

Tritium reservoirs are stainless steel vessels designed to contain
tritium in a nuclear weapon.\2 The reservoir must be removed from a
weapon periodically and replaced with one containing fresh tritium
because the tritium decays at a rate of 5.5 percent per year and thus
loses its effectiveness.  Once a reservoir is loaded with tritium,
not only does the tritium start to decay, but the tritium reservoir
also starts to deteriorate.  As a result, a reservoir can be refilled
only a limited number of times (depending on the design of the
reservoir) before it has to be replaced.  Tritium reservoirs had been
manufactured at DOE's Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado, but in
1993, DOE transferred the mission to its facility in Kansas City,
Missouri.  DOE appears capable of providing tritium reservoirs for
active weapons for the next several years.  However, DOE will not be
able to provide tritium reservoirs for reactivation weapons unless
current capacity is doubled.  DOE continually needs to replace
tritium reservoirs.  To provide reservoirs during the movement of
operations from Rocky Flats to Kansas City, DOE had Rocky Flats
preproduce reservoirs.  DOE's Kansas City facility began producing
reservoirs in 1995 and, in September 1996, the first Kansas City-made
reservoir was approved for use.  Kansas City is now in full
production mode.  This mode will allow DOE to service active weapons
according to current requirements contained in the Production and
Planning Directive. 

The production capacity currently available at Kansas City is not
sufficient to service reactivated weapons.  DOE studies have
concluded that Kansas City will need to substantially increase its
production capacity and preproduce some reservoirs to meet possible
requirements for reactivated weapons.  DOE estimates that the
expansion will have total costs of about $9.4 million.  It will be
completed in fiscal year 2000.  DOE officials believe that completing
this expansion on time will allow them to meet the Production and
Planning Directive's requirements by providing the capacity to
service inactive weapons that may be reactivated. 

In May and June 1996, DOE's Office of the Assistant Secretary for
Defense Programs considered delaying this expansion by not funding
the activity in the fiscal year 1997 budget.  On September 16, 1996,
the Albuquerque Operations Office wrote to the Deputy Assistant
Secretary for Military Applications and Stockpile Management,
pointing out the conflict between the budget and the Production and
Planning Directive's requirement that DOE be prepared to provide
reactivation weapons with limited life components.  On October 18,
1996, the Deputy Assistant Secretary sent a memorandum to Albuquerque
stating that DOE was committed to the activity and directing that
Albuquerque reallocate funds to support the expansion.  According to
DOE Defense Programs officials, the expansion of tritium reservoir
production is now considered one of the highest priorities for the
Albuquerque Operations Office. 

Finally, the Savannah River plant, where the reservoirs are filled,
has sufficient capacity to meet requirements for active and
reactivated weapons.  The Replacement Tritium Facility is a
relatively new building which was completed in 1993 at a cost of $413
million.  The facility was sized to support a considerably larger
nuclear weapons stockpile than exists today.  Although DOE has
sufficient capacity, it will have to convert an existing tritium
loading line to enable it to handle a new type of reservoir.  This
conversion, which will not be needed until at least 2002, will cost
about $250,000. 


--------------------
\2 Tritium is a gaseous radioactive isotope that is used to enhance
the power of nuclear weapons. 


      NEUTRON GENERATORS
---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :2.4

Neutron generators are timing devices that provide triggering pulses
for nuclear weapons.  Neutron generators had been produced by DOE's
plant in Pinellas, Florida.  In 1993, the Department closed the
Pinellas plant and transferred production to Los Alamos and Sandia. 
It now appears that Los Alamos and Sandia will be able to meet the
current requirements for servicing active weapons.  These
requirements should be met if the facilities begin production on
schedule and, in some cases, preproduce some neutron generators.  DOE
will not, however, be able to provide neutron generators for
reactivated weapons unless current production capacity is doubled. 

DOE will not need to supply new neutron generators for nuclear
weapons until 2000 or 2001.  Preparations for production at Los
Alamos and Sandia are currently on schedule and, if production begins
on schedule in 1999, DOE should be able to provide neutron generators
for active weapons for the next several years.  However, DOE will not
be able to meet the requirements for neutron generators in
reactivated weapons with the current planned capacity.  As a result,
the Albuquerque Operations Office developed plans to nearly double
the production capability at Sandia and Los Alamos.  This expansion
is expected to have total costs of about $17.8 million.  It will be
completed in fiscal year 2000.  DOE officials believe that completing
this expansion on time will allow them to meet the Production and
Planning Directive's requirements by providing the capacity to
service inactive weapons that may be reactivated. 

As with tritium reservoirs, DOE's Office of the Assistant Secretary
for Defense Programs initially considered not funding the expansion
in the fiscal year 1997 budget.  However, on October 18, 1996, DOE
instructed that the expansion be funded.  DOE headquarters officials
informed us that expansion of DOE's capability to manufacture neutron
generators is now also one of the Albuquerque Operations Office's
highest priorities. 


   OBSERVATIONS
------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :3

DOE's program to provide limited life components for the nation's
nuclear weapons is a critical part of stockpile maintenance.  If
limited life components are not or cannot be replaced on schedule,
the reliability of the weapons could be adversely affected--even to
the point of some weapons becoming nonoperational.  It appears that
DOE will be able to service active weapons for the next several
years, assuming that (1) commercial vendors can supply gas generators
and (2) DOE completes research on the operational life of RTGs and
battery design studies and finds a suitable commercial battery
vendor.  However, DOE does not currently have the required capability
to provide tritium reservoirs and neutron generators for weapons in
the inactive stockpile that may be reactivated.  While initially
unfunded, projects to expand production have recently been placed on
a high priority.  In our view, on the basis of the number of nuclear
weapons planned for the current and future stockpile, DOE's continued
commitment to these expansion plans for the limited life component
program is essential if the nuclear weapons stockpile is to be
maintained in accordance with the existing Production and Planning
Directive. 


   AGENCY COMMENTS AND OUR
   EVALUATION
------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :4

We provided a draft of this report to DOE for its review and comment. 
We met with officials from DOE's Office of Military Applications and
Stockpile Management and its Albuquerque Operations Office, who
agreed with the contents of this report.  The full text of DOE's
comments is included as appendix I. 


   SCOPE AND METHODOLOGY
------------------------------------------------------------ Letter :5

Our objectives were to provide information on DOE's ability to
provide limited life components for nuclear weapons in the current
active stockpile and the extent to which the components can be
supplied to weapons reactivated from the inactive stockpile.  To
determine if DOE could provide limited life components for nuclear
weapons, we obtained schedules showing the requirements for replacing
limited life components and compared those requirements with DOE's
production capabilities and planned production schedules.  We
discussed this data with DOE officials responsible for the limited
life component program, with representatives of the contractors that
operate DOE's limited life component production facilities, and with
the company that supplies gas generators to DOE.  We conducted our
review from November 1996 through January 1997 in accordance with
generally accepted government auditing standards. 


---------------------------------------------------------- Letter :5.1

As arranged with your offices, unless you publicly announce its
contents earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report
until 10 days after the date of this report.  At that time, we will
send copies of the report to the Secretary of Energy; the Secretary
of Defense; and the Director, Office of Management and Budget.  We
will also make copies available to others on request. 

If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please
call me at (202) 512-3841.  Major contributors to this report include
William F.  Fenzel, Assistant Director; Kenneth E.  Lightner Jr.,
Evaluator; and William M.  Seay, Evaluator. 

Allen Li
Associate Director, Energy, Resources,
 and Science Issues




(See figure in printed edition.)Appendix I
COMMENTS FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF
ENERGY
============================================================== Letter 


*** End of document. ***