In a December report, the Energy Department inspector general raised “serious concerns” about the department’s Stockpile Stewardship Program, which is intended to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear arsenal absent nuclear testing.
The audit, publicly released in early January, highlights “significant” delays in examining and remedying defects identified during surveillance testing, the core part of the stewardship effort. If the delays continue, the inspector general said, “The Department may not be in a position to unconditionally certify the aging nuclear weapons stockpile.”
Surveillance involves an extensive regimen of tests in which warheads, without their nuclear components, are launched or dropped; non-nuclear parts are tested in the laboratory; and components, including fissile material pits, are disassembled. On the basis of these activities, the department annually determines and certifies to the president that the nuclear weapons stockpile is safe and reliable.
In an October 2001 audit report, the inspector general had determined that these tests are “significantly backlogged” as a result of planning and coordination difficulties. The report noted that the backlogs date back to at least 1996 and are “projected to continue for several years.”
According to the December report, the two audits “raise serious concerns about the process the Department has employed” to maintain “satisfactory confidence” in the nuclear weapons stockpile. Retired vice president of Sandia National Laboratories, Robert Peurifoy, who headed the surveillance program, called the report “well done,” but said, “It has little to do with the health of the nuclear devices; rather it addresses the management process.”
The United States has not conducted nuclear weapons tests since a moratorium was instituted in 1992.