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former IAEA Director-General

The Stockpile’s Steward: An Interview With NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino
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Interviewed by Tom Z. Collina and Daniel Horner

Thomas D’Agostino was sworn in on August 30, 2007, as the Department of Energy’s undersecretary for nuclear security and as administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency within the department. On September 3, 2009, President Barack Obama announced that D’Agostino would continue to hold those positions. From February 2006 to August 2007, he served as the NNSA’s deputy administrator for defense programs.

In December 2010, D’Agostino, Kazakhstani Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Umarov, and their international partners were chosen in an online poll as the Arms Control Association’s Arms Control Persons of the Year for completing the job of securing material containing 10 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and three metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium from the BN-350 reactor in Kazakhstan.

Arms Control Today spoke with D’Agostino in his office on February 18. The interview covered NNSA weapons efforts such as plutonium pit production and warhead life extension programs, including experiments that use nuclear weapons materials without generating a nuclear explosion. On nonproliferation issues, Arms Control Today asked about the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which aims to reduce and secure vulnerable nuclear materials at civilian sites around the world, and the disposition of surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

The interview was transcribed by Xiaodon Liang. It has been edited for clarity.

ACT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. You have just submitted your fiscal year 2012 budget to Congress, and we would like to ask you some questions that go to the NNSA’s role in supporting U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, reducing nuclear arsenals, and maintaining the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Let’s start with the NNSA’s role in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. First, on the test ban treaty:

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] reaffirmed that “the United States will not conduct nuclear testing and will pursue ratification” of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The United States has not conducted a nuclear test explosion for almost 19 years.

Last November, the administration outlined its plan to increase funding for NNSA weapons activities, totaling more than $85 billion over the next 10 years. The directors of the three nuclear weapons laboratories wrote Dec. 1 that the proposed budgets provide “adequate support to sustain the safety, security, reliability and effectiveness of America’s nuclear deterrent.”

In your opinion, is there any technical reason that the United States should not ratify the test ban treaty and forgo testing for the foreseeable future?

D’Agostino: No. In my opinion, we have a safe and secure and reliable stockpile. Every year, we go through a very detailed annual assessment process where we evaluate the condition of the stockpile. We get independent input from our laboratory directors that comes through a variety of processes both within the Department of Energy and NNSA and at the Defense Department. Both of those come through independently at the top. It’s very consistent on the policy message that you described: There’s no need to conduct underground testing.

There is continued work that has to be done, and that’s what is great about the budgets that have been submitted by the president in the past two years. They represent a very consistent view that we need to increase surveillance work because if we’re going to maintain the deterrent and get into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we actually have to have the data in order to ensure that we understand the condition of the stockpile as it currently exists and as we expect it will progress out into the future. Because with that [surveillance] data, we use our people and put it into our machines to understand and simulate and do subcritical experiments [which utilize high explosives and fissile materials, including plutonium, but do not generate a nuclear yield] and the like in order to ensure that we can continue to maintain the stockpile without testing.

So, I feel very strongly that we have the right plan in place. The president has submitted this plan. He’s been true to his word with respect to the 1251 report—the report that we submitted last year to Congress describing what kind of program and plan needs to happen.

[The report] shows increased investments across a variety of fronts, increased investments in work on modernization and work on the stockpile itself to make sure we extend the life of the existing stockpile. It shows increased investments in scientific work that has to happen—I mentioned subcritical experiments. It shows increased investments in surveillance activities to gather data.

Importantly, it shows investments—and this applies more broadly, not just to the warheads themselves, but in the facilities—that the nation needs in order to do nuclear security work generally. This is nuclear security work on the warheads, nuclear security work on nonproliferation, nuclear security work on nuclear counterterrorism and nuclear forensics and intelligence analysis.

All of those [areas] are pieces that we know we need in order to have a safe world out into the future. It’s a very nice wrap, frankly, between the warheads and nonproliferation activities and people. Those things come together in a very tight way with this program and budget.

ACT: The NPR pledged that “the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads” and that, regarding any decision to proceed to engineering development for warhead life extension programs [LEPs], “the Administration will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse. Replacement of nuclear components would be undertaken only if critical Stockpile Management Program goals could not otherwise be met and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.”

Does the NNSA have any plans to “replace” warheads or parts in the future, that is, introduce warhead designs that are not currently in the stockpile, but are based on tested designs?

D’Agostino: The United States has a plan to extend the life of the existing stockpile. As you mentioned, the Nuclear Posture Review very clearly directs our laboratory directors to study the full range of options to make sure that we get the benefit of their technical knowledge and capability. As I think you mentioned earlier, the laboratory directors have endorsed this as an acceptable approach to move forward with taking care of the stockpile out into the future.

So, to get right to your question, we’re in the very early study phases for the two life extension systems where your question might be appropriate. One is the B61 life extension program, and the second one is the W78 life extension activities. Both of these, particularly the W78 activity, have barely just gotten off the ground.

With the B61 [program], we are in the early phases, with the study examining that full range of options well under way. I don’t have the analysis yet because we’re in what we call the “phase 1-phase 2” area of the work on the B61 life extension. When that data comes back to us, we’ll look at all of the options that are being proposed, and then we will decide whether option A, option B, or option C is the best track. If it’s option C, we’ll need to go back up. We’re not at that stage on these life extensions yet.

ACT: Okay. Do you see at this point any potential missions that could not be achieved with refurbishment or reuse?

D’Agostino: At this point, right now, I don’t have the data, so I can’t answer that question directly. The mission space is a responsibility of the Defense Department, but the president has made clear that what we’re doing right now is not adding new missions to the warheads. We’re taking care, extending the life, of the warheads that we have right now. So, the analysis is currently under way on whether replacement is the way to go, or refurbishment, or reuse.

It’s very clear, though, that the president’s direction and our direction to our laboratories is to study, make sure they have examined that full range of options. We want to give them, frankly, the benefit of doing that because we want the nation to have the safest, most secure stockpile technically possible. The decisions will get made to balance, do trade-offs. Trade-offs in cost, trade-offs in risk, trade-offs in political [terms], maybe some atmospherics that may be happening there. We’re not there yet; we’re far from that point on making those decisions.

ACT: Would future warheads with “intrinsic surety” require “replacement,” or are there other operational measures that can provide sufficient protection at lower cost? If you were to design warheads with intrinsic security, can you do that with refurbishment or reuse, or would you have to move to a replacement design?

D’Agostino: The answer is, “It depends,” frankly.

It depends on the technical details. Now we’re delving into the heart of work on the primary, and the answer will be, “It depends.” It’s not clear that you would have to use a particular approach. What’s clear is that we’re going to examine all of our approaches, because we do want to extract that benefit and that knowledge and then allow policy and programmatic decisions to get made after that.

ACT: The NNSA’s [fiscal year] 2012 budget requests [funds] to study “scaled experiments” for “improving predictive capability of performance calculations for nuclear weapon primaries.” Can you describe these experiments and explain what they are for?

D’Agostino: Certainly. Scaled experiments basically are a type of subcritical experiment. Scaled experiments involve plutonium, but like subcriticals, they’re subcritical, they’re not nuclear tests.

Subcritical experiments are done all the time in order to gather the data that we need to study how the plutonium ages and make sure that we understand the dynamic [properties of the material], how the material moves under extreme pressures and temperatures. It’s an additional set of inputs. Because the president has a commitment to maintain the stockpile without underground testing and pursue the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, our view as a technical organization is to make sure we examine all the technical approaches to get data so we can take care of the stockpile and fulfill that mandate.

An element of the resources we’re talking about here has to do with making sure and understanding, “Can a more robust set of activities in scaled experiments provide data that allows us in effect to ensure that we don’t have to conduct an underground test?” We don’t know the answer to that question. That’s why the JASONs [group of senior science and defense consultants] are looking at it. That’s why we’re examining it in depth within the administration. That’s why we’ve got some money set aside to go answer that question.

Before we decide to pursue a path of additional scaled experiments, we want to make sure we understand the benefit that it provides versus the costs, the financial costs, associated with doing that. It’s going to take us a few years to get to that point because this is the heart of the matter, frankly. The data from the primaries is the key point in being able to take care of the stockpile.

ACT: Would a new facility be necessary? And if so, how much might it cost?

D’Agostino: We don’t know if a new facility is necessary. We don’t know if a new scaled-experiments program is necessary, and therefore we don’t know what it would cost.

ACT: Okay, and just a clarifying question: scaled experiments have or have not been done up to this point?

D’Agostino: Scaled experiments are done by, have been done by states that have stockpiles of warheads.

ACT: But not in the United States?

D’Agostino: In the United States, we don’t have a very—no, we haven’t done scaled experiments in a long time.

ACT: Los Alamos National Laboratory currently has a relatively limited capacity to produce plutonium parts, or pits, for warheads. The planned future capacity is 50 to 80 pits per year.

Given that New START [the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] will reduce the deployed U.S. arsenal by hundreds of warheads, why do you believe this production capacity is still necessary?

D’Agostino: To be clear: pit production actually does not happen in the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility. Just to be clear on that. Pit production happens in one of our facilities within the technical area [at Los Alamos] that does this work.

Fifty to 80 pits per year is the throughput rate we expect that we might possibly need out into the future. [That] doesn’t necessarily mean we need it now, but we might possibly need it in order to take care of the stockpile, given the size of the stockpile.

The reductions of the New START treaty were factored into that particular analysis. So if you think about the need to conduct a life extension on a warhead and any modifications you might have to make to an existing pit in order to extend its life, and how long our life extensions would typically take—our life extension programs typically take 10 years or so on the average, because we do have a number of different warhead types in our stockpile—we believe that 50 to 80 provides a reasonable balance.

The last thing we want to do, because this is a very expensive facility, is—we don’t want to build a larger facility than we need. But we also need to be able to respond to a technical problem in the stockpile should we have to reconstitute a whole warhead type within a reasonable period of time, or respond to a geopolitical change that would require us to ramp up. These are all political decisions, of course, and technical decisions.

The nexus is that crossover between politics and technical, that sphere we’re operating in. But 50 to 80 is considered a reasonable throughput rate. It’s very small; it’s nothing at all like we were [doing] during the Cold War. It’s much smaller than the Cold War.

In fact, the point that is very important to remember on a Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility is that we’re trying to lay the groundwork for the future. Get out of two plutonium facilities and move down to one plutonium facility. [We don’t need] one at Los Alamos and one at [Lawrence] Livermore [National Laboratory]; we just want one for the nation, that’s all the nation needs. We have hundreds of thousands of [square feet of] plutonium lab space. We need 40 percent of that out into the future.

What we’re trying to do is drive efficiencies. But importantly, these investments are important in order for us to do our nuclear counterterrorism work and in order for us to do our nonproliferation work. The Chemistry and Metallurgy [Research] Replacement facility is a facility that is needed to do the analysis on the samples to make sure our stockpile is safe. It also—should there be a condition in the future where we get our hands on plutonium that’s been smuggled—allows us to do some nuclear forensics work.

ACT: In 2006 the NNSA published the results of a laboratory study that found that plutonium pits have lifetimes of at least 85 years. The NNSA [fiscal year] 2012 budget states that “a lifetime was established for a W88 primary, advancing our lifetime estimates beyond the pit lifetimes produced in 2006.”

Can you tell us what the new lifetime estimate is for the W88 pit?

D’Agostino: No. Sorry, I can’t. These [estimates] were general. If you recall, the 2006 study spoke in some generalities because there are ranges. In fact, I might add, we’re quite fortunate that we had these longer lifetimes. Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos did the detailed studies. If the lifetimes were significantly shorter, we would have been forced as a nation to accelerate our activities, and then we would have, of course, run the risk of potentially overbuilding the size of the pit production capabilities. So, longer lifetimes is good stuff.

ACT: What is the NNSA’s current opinion on how long pits last, in general?

D’Agostino: In general, we’ll stick by the data you talked about earlier.

ACT: Now we’d like to shift to the NNSA’s nonproliferation programs, particularly nuclear security and fissile materials disposition.

It has been almost two years since President Obama announced the effort to “secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.” There have been a number of significant accomplishments in those two years. What are your priorities for 2011 and 2012? What can we expect to see by 2013—the end of the four-year block—and beyond that?

D’Agostino: The president has made it very clear what my priorities are. I love it when I get clear guidance. The clear guidance is to secure all the most vulnerable material in four years. And we have a plan. We are implementing that plan.

The plan, of course, needs to be resourced, and we’re resourcing that plan. The president’s budget requests for FY11 and 12 and the out-years do resource that plan. If numbers change, obviously we will look at our priorities to make sure the right thing happens given the priorities. If that means making some tough decisions, we’re ready to make those tough decisions.

ACT: What can we expect to see by 2013, four years since he made the statement? [Are there things] we should look for beyond that as well?

D’Agostino: Well, the plan that we have right now completes this effort in December of 2013. That’s the key. So we’re working to that plan. We’ve identified a scope of work to get this four-year material secured. Not just ourselves, of course; we’re doing this with the international community.

Last April at the nuclear security summit, there was a commitment that two years hence we would meet again in Seoul and see how well we’ve done. We’re tracking very closely against the commitments made by other nations on work that they would do in order to get this material secured and in some cases removed. For some of the work that they’re doing, we’re partners with them to make sure it happens. So, that is in our plan and in our budget.

It’s exciting work. What’s wonderful about this is there’s a reporting-back mechanism to the highest levels in government—to the presidents or the prime ministers—that says, “I said I was going to do this two years ago; well, how did I do?” The whole world is watching. This is great stuff.

ACT: As you said, though, there are likely to be some budget constraints. In its budget request for fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration requested an increase of more than $200 million from the fiscal year 2010 appropriation for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. But because Congress has been funding the government with a continuing resolution [CR], spending for the first five months of fiscal year 2011 has been at the 2010 level.

What impact has that had on the effort to secure vulnerable nuclear material?

D’Agostino: Because the FY11 budget is still being negotiated, we don’t know where it’s going to end up. What I will say, what works with a continuing resolution is that the continuing resolutions provide us flexibility in the executive branch to move resources to the areas of highest priority.

Will there be some impacts? There likely will be some minor impacts associated with, “Well, we’ll have to move this shipment back a few months.” Our plan was to front-load that Global Threat Reduction Initiative work to get it under way robustly in 2011 so that as schedules change, we don’t lose track and we can still hit our December 2013 target. Our plan is still to do that. We’re down at the FY10 levels, but we can reallocate resources.

I would say if we’re at a situation where we’re going through a whole year [with a continuing resolution that does not provide the requested increases], there will likely be some greater impacts. We adjust our programs on a regular basis as a result of [the uncertainty of operating under a series of short-term continuing resolutions]. Do we anticipate another weeklong CR? How does it impact our plans? As a three-month CR becomes a six-month CR, becomes a full-year CR, there are actually different plans that have to be developed in each case. With the three-month CR, well, I can hold out, but with the one-year CR, I might have to delay some things. If I knew what the future was like, it would be easy, but I don’t. So, that’s why this is hard.

ACT: You mentioned reallocating. So, you’re already looking at areas other than the nuclear security efforts where you can draw money from and reallocate it to nuclear security, is that what you were saying?

D’Agostino: That’s right. What we have been doing is looking at areas where resources aren’t being spent at the pace we expected or may be of lower priority. At this point right now, all of our programs are running on track because we typically have a slight carryover balance that we bring in from the previous year. We’re on a one-year kind of an approach. So, we’re managing just fine, but things get harder as the year goes on.

ACT: Turning to military fissile materials, you are working on the disposition of more than 30 metric tons of former U.S. weapons plutonium by building a plant at the Savannah River Site to turn it into mixed-oxide [MOX] fuel that is to be used in commercial reactors.

The MOX plant is the largest item in the nonproliferation budget; you are requesting $579 million for construction [of the MOX fuel fabrication plant and two supporting facilities] for fiscal year 2012.

Given that the United States has historically tried to discourage civilian use of plutonium and given that converting plutonium into reactor fuel is not the only option for disposition, please tell us why you see this as a major budgetary and policy priority.

D’Agostino: It’s a significant priority for a couple of reasons. One is, we’re talking about 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, probably the most dangerous stuff on earth. Using it up, putting it in a form that it can never be used for its original purpose, is a great goal. Two is that we’re going to be able to extract a significant amount of energy out of this material.

When we’ve done studies in the past, we’ve looked at immobilization, long-term storage. At the end of the day, with all of those other approaches, you still at the end of the day—after 50 years, at the end of 100 years—have this 34 metric tons of plutonium. Using the approach the nation is proceeding down right now, that material doesn’t exist in that particular form. It’s really, in my view, the ultimate swords-into-ploughshares program. It’s that conversion of that material and getting rid of that material.

The president’s plan, the plan that we have laid out right now, really focuses on the material. Securing the material at sites, detecting illicit transfers of material across borders or between geographic locations, not making more material, and getting rid of material that you don’t need. Obviously, this question you asked on mixed-oxide fuel falls into that last category and also has the added benefit of extracting some of the value out of the material that the nation put into it.

ACT: What’s the timetable for producing the MOX fuel and irradiating it in commercial reactors, especially that second piece?

D’Agostino: Well, the timetable right now is that we’re currently operating on a track to get the facility up and operating in 2016.

Now, just like very many complicated things, it’s not a light switch that flips “on” on day one. In making this many metric tons per year of material, there’s a ramp-up in its approach. What we’re doing right now, though, is focusing on project management; that’s a key element of what we want to do in order to make sure that we’re successful.

The NNSA’s fiscal year 2012 program and budget request has a significant number of large projects in it, and the focus now is going to be making sure that we deliver on those projects on time, on schedule, as committed once we hit our performance baseline.

That’s all about improving the way we do business, which is one of the three themes that I’ve mentioned in presentations in the past. The first theme is investing in our future. The second theme is implementing the president’s nuclear security agenda, the topic which we’ve talked about. The third theme is improving the way we do business. So, the focus is on getting that MOX plant together.

[On the question of when reactors will start loading MOX fuel,] there’s work we’re doing with Energy Northwest and with the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] to reach some agreements on how we would use this fuel on what type of time period. With the Tennessee Valley Authority, we have a commitment with the NNSA to do a supplemental environmental impact statement to evaluate the use of this material in the five TVA reactors that can use it. Then the agreements will get modified, and we’ll go from there.

We expect this, in about the 2012 time frame to come to fruition, because we recognize that we need an end-stream user. With Energy Northwest, we’ve recently entered into an agreement to examine the use of this material. Typically what that involves is making the right types of components that can be irradiated so that they can be examined by the end user to make sure they’re comfortable in putting this fuel inside their reactors.

ACT: Just to be clear, they’re doing testing; you don’t have contracts with those utilities to go ahead yet. Is that correct?

D’Agostino: That’s correct. We have agreements to do the upfront work necessary before we can actually put a contract in place. Because before we put a contract in place—an agreement that I give you this, and you give me that on this type of timescale—the utilities, appropriately so, need to make sure [they know] what are they getting themselves into. They see value in taking the time and energy to examine this question, and our discussions with TVA are very promising in this area.

ACT: On the timetable, 2018, I think, is when you plan to start loading [MOX fuel] into reactors. Is that still the timetable, and does that allow time for testing of the assemblies and all the other preliminary [work] and licensing and everything that’s necessary to be ready to actually start loading commercial fuel elements into reactors of that kind?

D’Agostino: I believe so. I don’t have the exact date on the tip of my tongue. That sounds about right. It’s a period of time after, obviously, the MOX plant has to get up and running. It gives us the time to get these elements in place.

ACT: You talked about the five reactors at the TVA, that’s the two Sequoyah and three Browns Ferry [reactors], I assume. But if I recall, the two Sequoyah reactors are also backup reactors for the tritium mission. So, is there a potential juggle you’ll have to do?

D’Agostino: Those specific details will have to get handled if and when they’re needed at that particular time. That’s how I would view that.

ACT: Is there anything that we should have asked that we didn’t that you want to make clear?

D’Agostino: Well, first of all I want to thank Arms Control Today. I appreciate the honor of receiving this award [as an Arms Control Person of the Year]. I recognize it’s not because of me, frankly, it’s because of all the work of the men and women in the NNSA that work all over the world and in this country to get this work done. I think it’s actually a recognition that the NNSA is making the shift from a Cold War nuclear weapons complex to a 21st-century nuclear security enterprise, where nuclear security is the paramount watchword. Frankly, I’m very excited about it, and the people in the NNSA are as well.

ACT: I should say also that the award was voted on [by participants in an online poll], so we can’t take credit for choosing you.

Thank you.


Updated June 2, 2011: Shaw Areva MOX Services, the NNSA's prime contractor for the surplus-weapons-plutonium disposition program, has a contract with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to explore the potential use in the Columbia reactor of MOX fuel made with the surplus weapons plutonium. The reactor is located near Richland, Washington and is operated by Energy Northwest, which is considering a paper study with PNNL that would look at certain aspects of using MOX fuel at Columbia, including licensing, operational requirements, and security. As of June 1, 2011, Energy Northwest had not signed the subcontract for the study with PNNL.