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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Kingston Reif

U.S. Plutonium Pit Costs Rise

June 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Energy Department’s cost to build the infrastructure to produce new plutonium cores for U.S. nuclear warheads could be as high as $18 billion, according to a department estimate and yet-to-be-released internal estimates detailed to Arms Control Today by a congressional source. 

A technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico manipulates plutonium as part of the U.S. Stockpile Stewardship Program in 2005. Current plans call for expanding the production of plutonium pits at both Los Alamos and at the Savannah RIver Site in South Carolina. (Photo: U.S. Energy Department)The updated price tag is nearly two and half times larger than earlier projections and is likely to raise fresh doubts about the affordability of the department’s aggressive plans to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure. 

The updated estimates are not reflected in the budget plan for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that the Trump administration bequeathed to the Biden administration. That means future NNSA weapons program budget requests will require significant increases beyond current plans just to accommodate the growth in the projected cost of pit production. 

“The data shows that the last Administration sold a plan that is not executable and has left it to the Biden Administration to sort out,” the congressional source told Arms Control Today.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review proposed to increase the rate of production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year at two sites. Congress subsequently mandated production to that level in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. (See ACT, June 2018.)

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is slated to produce at least 30 pits per year by 2026 while the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina is pegged to produce at least 50 pits annually by 2030. 

The Energy Department’s semiautonomous NNSA announced on April 28 the approval of the Critical Decision 1 (CD-1) milestone for the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project.

“CD-1 approval marks the completion of the project definition phase and the conceptual design,” an NNSA press release stated. The CD-1 cost estimate for the Los Alamos pit facility is $2.7-3.9 billion, with an overall project completion date range of 2027-2028, it said.

That is an increase from a preliminary estimate of $1.5-3.0 billion completed in 2015 for the 30-pit capability. The NNSA press release did not specify how the agency plans to achieve the production of at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos. 

According to the congressional source, the projected CD-1 cost to complete the pit production facility at Savannah River, which was presented to the Energy Department for a decision and has yet to be released, is $8-14 billion. In 2018, the agency had estimated that the facility would cost $1.8-4.6 billion to complete. 

The Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request published May 28 said: “The scope, cost and schedule estimates developed for the CD-1 approval package include an estimated high end of the cost range at $11.1B [billion].” It is not clear how the agency settled on this figure.

The updated cost estimate also raises questions about whether the Savannah River site can realistically produce at least 50 pits annually by 2030. Jill Hruby, President Biden’s nominee to be administrator of the NNSA told the Senate Armed Services Committee at her May 27 confirmation hearing that the 50-pit goal “is likely to, now, be somewhere between 2030 and 2035.” The budget request said that achieving that goal by 2030 “is not likely.”

The agency will set the official cost and schedule baseline for the Los Alamos and Savannah River facilities when their design is at least 90 percent complete. The Los Alamos facility is slated to reach this point in 2023. The agency has not suggested a target for the Savannah River facility. 

The Pentagon and the NNSA have offered several justifications for seeking a production capability of at least 80 pits per year by 2030. One is the need to build enough new W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads to arm the Air Force’s new ICBM, known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent system. The new missile system is slated to be fielded between 2028 and 2036. 

Other justifications include enhancing the safety and security of nuclear warheads and hedging against uncertainty about the aging plutonium in the pits. The new production targets would allow the NNSA to replace all the estimated 3,800 operational warheads in the U.S. stockpile by the end of the century. 

But skeptics have raised concerns about the executability of and the need for the ambitious production plan. 

An independent March 2019 study by the Institute for Defense Analyses concluded that there is “no historical precedent” for the agency’s plan to go from the current annual production level of zero to 80 pits by 2030. “No available option can be expected to provide 80 pits per year by 2030,” the report said.

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a report published last September that the NNSA “has been unable to plan for and complete major construction projects on time” and, over the past two decades, Los Alamos “has twice had to suspend laboratory-wide operations after the discovery of significant safety issues.”

“The latest cost estimates suggest [the] NNSA has done little to improve its management of major programs,” Sharon Weiner, a former program examiner with the National Security Division of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a May 19 email. 

“Given that [the] NNSA is unlikely to meet pit production goals with either facility, now is the time to reconsider pit production plans rather than commit to two budget fiascos,” she wrote.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will stick to the plan to produce 80 pits per year at two sites despite the growing price tag. 

Asked at a House Appropriations Committee hearing on May 12 if she supports the NNSA’s current approach, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm replied, “I do.” 

The rising cost of the plutonium mission comes on the heels of large spending increases on nuclear weapons programs at the NNSA over the past four years. (See ACT, March 2021.)

The ambition of the agency’s modernization program is unlike anything seen since the Cold War. Allison Bawden, a director at the GAO, told Congress in March 2020 that the federal spending watchdog is “concerned about the long-term affordability of the plans.”

The cost to build the infrastructure to produce plutonium cores for U.S. nuclear warheads could be as much as $18 billion, more than twice earlier projections.

Projected Cost of U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Rises

June 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States will spend a total of $634 billion over the next 10 years to sustain and modernize its nuclear arsenal, according to the latest projection by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The estimate is 28 percent higher than the previous 10-year projection released in 2019 and could exacerbate concerns about the necessity and the sustainability of the current nuclear modernization effort amid what experts predict will likely be a flat defense budget in the coming years.

The CBO report, published May 24, includes the projected costs to sustain and modernize U.S. delivery vehicles, warheads, and their associated infrastructure across a range of programs that are managed by the Defense Department and the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The report estimates that the $634 billion in planned spending in fiscal years 2021–2030 will consume 6.0–8.5 percent of projected total spending on national defense during those years.

The 2019 CBO report had forecast total U.S. spending on nuclear forces at $494 billion through 2028 and estimated that the annual cost during those years would be 5–7 percent of the national defense budget. (See ACT, March 2019.) 

Of the $140 billion increase in spending identified in the 2021 report, the CBO attributed 36 percent, or about $50 billion, to an increase in spending on nuclear weapons during the eight years, from 2021 to 2028, that overlap in both estimates.

Another 50 percent or so of the increase results from inflation and from the fact that the 2021 report begins and ends two years later than the previous projection, the CBO calculated. The other 15 percent reflects the estimated cost of growth beyond projected amounts. 

The percentage increase of the nuclear weapons budget administered by the Energy Department is “substantially higher” than that for the Defense Department, the report said, with Energy Department costs “projected to total $229 billion, or 36 percent more than CBO estimated in 2019, whereas [Defense Department] costs are projected to total $406 billion, or 25 percent more than CBO estimated in 2019.” 

Congress appropriated $15.4 billion for NNSA nuclear weapons activities in fiscal year 2021, a nearly 25 percent increase above the previous year’s appropriation. (See ACT, March 2021.) Modernization costs for nuclear command, control, communications, and early-warning systems increased by $17 billion, to $94 billion, over 10 years in the latest CBO report.

Within the triad of nuclear delivery systems, projected spending on the U.S. fleet of ballistic missile submarines increased significantly, with the CBO putting the total price tag at $145 billion over 10 years, which is a $38 billion increase from the previous CBO estimate. The CBO attributed some of the increase to higher operating costs for the current fleet and plans to operate some of the submarines longer than initially planned. 

The cost of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles is projected to grow to $82 billion over 10 years, $21 billion more than the 2019 projection. The CBO said that was due primarily to the difference in time periods covered by the reports. 

In addition, the CBO report estimates that the United States will spend $53 billion over the next 10 years on strategic bombers. The CBO notes that the estimate only covers a quarter of the costs of the B-52 bomber and the new B-21 bomber because the rest of the costs are assigned to the bombers’ conventional, not nuclear, mission. If the full cost of B-52 and B-21 bombers were included, the total cost of nuclear forces would be $711 billion, including cost growth. 

CBO projections are based on the plans reflected in the fiscal year 2021 budget requests that the Defense and Energy departments under the Trump administration submitted in February 2020, “provided those plans did not change or experience any cost growth or schedule delays.” The CBO also assumed that the Pentagon would move forward with directives listed in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, such as the fielding of a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), although this program is believed to be under review by the Biden administration. (See ACT, April 2021.) 

The CBO report said that the estimate of the costs of the SLCM and its warhead of about $10 billion from 2021 to 2030 “is highly uncertain; in fact, it is still not clear whether the program will be pursued at all and, if so, what the design and development schedule will be.”

The United States will spend $634 billion over the next 10 years to sustain and modernize its nuclear arsenal, up 28 percent over the last estimate, the Congressional Budget Office says.

New ICBM Interceptor to Cost $18 Billion

June 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

A new U.S. interceptor intended to counter limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) strikes from North Korea or Iran could cost nearly $18 billion over its lifetime, according to the Defense Department’s independent cost assessment office. The new estimate comes amid continued questions about the future of the U.S. homeland missile defense mission and is at least 36 percent more than the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had suggested. 

The price tag for the Next Generation Interceptor, intended to knock down North Korean missiles in space as part of U.S. homeland defense system, is projected to cost at least 36 percent more than earlier projections. It will replace the cancelled Redesigned Kill Vehicle (shown) program. (Photo: Raytheon)The Pentagon said in April that the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office estimates the cost of the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) at $17.7 billion. That figure represents $13.1 billion for up-front costs, including the purchase of 10 developmental interceptors; $2.3 billion for 21 operational interceptors; and $2.3 billion for operations and support costs over the life of the interceptors. 

The average cost to develop and purchase the 31 interceptors amounts to $498 million per interceptor, according to the CAPE office. The cost to purchase the 21 operational interceptors is $111 million per interceptor. 

The Pentagon in March awarded two research and development contracts for the interceptor to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. (See ACT, April 2021.) The CAPE estimate “reflects the system development acquisition plan to carry two NGI contractor teams through Critical Design Review…at which point the [MDA] will down-select to a single vendor to proceed with the remaining development, testing, and production efforts,” Pentagon spokesperson Christopher Sherwood told Inside Defense in an April 27 statement. 

The NGI emerged after the Pentagon in 2019 cancelled the program to design an upgraded kill vehicle, the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), for the already existing interceptors that are part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. (See ACT, October 2019.) The MDA planned to deploy the RKV beginning in 2021 atop 20 new interceptors in Alaska to augment the existing fleet of 44 interceptors there and in California. The RKV was also intended to replace the aging kill vehicles atop the current fleet.

The agency spent a total of $1.2 billion on RKV development at the time the program was cancelled, according to a 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. 

The Defense Department hopes to begin fielding the NGI in fiscal year 2028 in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska. The department is not currently planning to replace the existing 44 interceptors, which have been plagued by development problems and testing failures, with the NGI but rather to supplement them with 20 of the new interceptors to bring the fleet total to 64 interceptors. 

Independent assessments put the cost to purchase the newest versions of the existing ground-based interceptors at $90–100 million per missile. The CAPE estimate of the NGI cost is higher than the MDA estimate of $11.3 billion for the program, the GAO said in an April 28 report.

The high price tag to acquire the NGI has raised concerns from some members of Congress. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), citing the shortcomings of the existing 44 interceptors and current plans to field just 21 NGIs, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 12 that “[i]t’s not at all clear to me that spending billions of dollars on additional interceptors is the right call.” 

The Pentagon is planning to extend the life of the existing ground-based interceptors pending the deployment of the NGI in 2028. MDA Director Adm. Jon Hill said on May 12 that the life extension effort will increase the reliability of the interceptors “to kind of bridge that gap between when we’ll actually deploy the first NGI.”

Meanwhile, the April GAO report highlighted roadblocks to the Pentagon’s plans as of the end of the Trump administration for a new layered homeland missile defense approach that would augment the GMD system with the Aegis system, specifically the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptor, and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which is designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles.

The GAO found that the GMD system’s fire control and engagement planning currently “does not take into account any other interceptor systems” and that managing engagement among multiple interceptor systems requires a “more cohesive integration with overall battle planning” than exists at this time. The agency also found that the existing ground-based interceptor has “hardware constraints that limit communication opportunities with ground systems while in flight.”

The GAO said “more development work is needed for the [Aegis] SM-3 Block IIA to support a layered homeland defense capability” and that this effort “could introduce considerable cost, schedule, and performance uncertainty to a program that has just entered initial production.”

The Pentagon in November 2020 conducted a successful first intercept test of the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM target. (See ACT, December 2020.) “This was not an operational test, however, and it was executed under highly favorable conditions,” the GAO noted.  

Furthermore, the GAO said that “there are a number of significant upgrades and steps to address obsolescence that would be needed to enhance THAAD’s performance and make it capable of performing” as part of the layered homeland defense.

The MDA requested $274 million in fiscal year 2021 to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the THAAD system, to provide an additional layer of defense against limited ICBMs threats. But Congress poured cold water on the proposal and provided $49 million only for limited concept studies, a decrease of $225 million from the budget request. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

 

Amid continued questions about the future of the U.S. homeland defense mission, the cost of a new interceptor to counter North Korean and Iranian missiles could cost 36 percent more than expected.

Biden Budget Should Support More Cost-Effective, Stabilizing, Saner Nuclear Strategy

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Experts Available for Comment on Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request

For Immediate Release: May 27, 2021

Media ContactsKingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, 202-463-8270 ext. 104; Shannon Bugos, research associate, 202-463-8270 ext. 113

(Washington, D.C.)—The Biden administration is set to release its fiscal year 2022 national defense budget request May 28. The request is expected to continue forward with most, if not all, of the Trump administration’s excessive plans to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Failure to adjust the existing approach would be a disappointing missed opportunity to put the modernization effort on a more cost-effective and stable footing while ensuring a strong deterrent.

The United States is planning to spend $634 billion over the next decade to sustain and modernize its arsenal, according to a Congressional Budget Office report published Monday. This is an increase of $140 billion, or 28 percent, from the previous 10-year projection. The major uptick in spending will compete with other national security priorities, such as strengthening pandemic defense and response and augmenting U.S. conventional military capabilities, amid what most experts believe will be a flat defense budget over the next several years.

During the campaign, President Biden said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and that his “administration will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.” Biden is right. Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary for a credible nuclear deterrent, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current modernization plan are rising fast.

The Biden administration’s topline discretionary budget request released in April said that “While the Administration is reviewing the U.S. nuclear posture, the discretionary request supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs while ensuring that these efforts are sustainable.” But several current U.S. nuclear modernization efforts do not meet the “sustainable” criterion.

As the Government Accountability Office noted in a report published May 6, “every nuclear triad replacement program—including the B21, LRSO, GBSD, and Columbia class submarine, and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays due to program-specific and DOD- and DOE-wide risk factors.”

Meanwhile, projected spending on nuclear warheads and infrastructure at the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration has ballooned to $505 billion, according to the agency’s 25-year plan published in December. That represents a staggering increase of $113 billion from the 2020 version of the plan.

The Trump administration’s nuclear weapons policies and spending plans demand a fundamental rethinking.

The Biden administration had little time to prepare the fiscal year 2022 budget request. A forthcoming review of U.S. nuclear policy and posture will evaluate existing policies and spending plans in more detail. In keeping with President Biden’s views, the review should pursue a nuclear posture that is more stabilizing, supports the pursuit of additional arms control and reduction measures designed to enhance stability and reduce the chance of nuclear conflict, and frees up taxpayer dollars for higher priority national and health security needs.

Experts Available:

  • Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, [email protected], 202-463-8270 ext. 104
  • Shannon Bugos, research associate, [email protected], 202-463-8270 ext. 113

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Experts Available for Comment on Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request

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