Nuclear Weapons:

NNSA Needs to Refine and More Effectively Manage Its New Approach for Assessing and Certifying Nuclear Weapons

GAO-06-261: Published: Feb 3, 2006. Publicly Released: Feb 3, 2006.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Eugene E. Aloise
(202) 512-6870
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

In 1992, the United States began a unilateral moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons. To compensate for the lack of testing, the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) developed the Stockpile Stewardship Program to assess and certify the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing. In 2001, NNSA's weapons laboratories began developing what is intended to be a common framework for a new methodology for assessing and certifying the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing. GAO was asked to evaluate (1) the new methodology NNSA is developing and (2) NNSA's management of the implementation of this new methodology.

NNSA has endorsed the use of the "quantification of margins and uncertainties" (QMU) methodology as its principal method for assessing and certifying the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile. Starting in 2001, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) officials began developing QMU, which focuses on creating a common "watch list" of factors that are the most critical to the operation and performance of a nuclear weapon. QMU seeks to quantify (1) how close each critical factor is to the point at which it would fail to perform as designed (i.e., the margin to failure) and (2) the uncertainty that exists in calculating the margin, in order to ensure that the margin is sufficiently larger than the uncertainty. According to NNSA and laboratory officials, they intend to use their calculations of margins and uncertainties to more effectively target their resources, as well as to certify any redesigned weapons envisioned by the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. According to NNSA and weapons laboratory officials, they have made progress in applying the principles of QMU to the assessment and certification of nuclear warheads in the stockpile. NNSA has commissioned two technical reviews of the implementation of QMU. While strongly supporting QMU, the reviews found that the development and implementation of QMU was still in its early stages and recommended that NNSA further define the technical details supporting the implementation of QMU and integrate the activities of the three weapons laboratories in implementing QMU. GAO also found important differences in the understanding and application of QMU among the weapons laboratories. For example, while LLNL and LANL both agree on the fundamental tenets of QMU at a high level, they are pursuing different approaches to calculating and combining uncertainties. NNSA uses a planning structure that it calls "campaigns" to organize and fund its scientific research. According to NNSA policies, campaign managers at NNSA headquarters are responsible for developing plans and high-level milestones, overseeing the execution of these plans, and providing input to the evaluation of the performance of the weapons laboratories. However, NNSA's management of these processes is deficient in four key areas. First, NNSA's existing plans do not adequately integrate the scientific research currently conducted across the weapon complex to support the development and implementation of QMU. Second, NNSA has not developed a clear, consistent set of milestones to guide the development and implementation of QMU. Third, NNSA has not established formal requirements for conducting annual, technical reviews of the implementation of QMU at the three laboratories or for certifying the completion of QMU-related milestones. Finally, NNSA has not established adequate performance measures to determine the progress of the three laboratories in developing and implementing QMU.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has implemented this recommendation by conducting a number of important periodic "quantification of margins and uncertainties" (QMU) reviews, notably a major National Academy of Sciences review in 2007, a US Strategic Command review in 2008, a review by the JASONs in 2009, and annual reviews and collaboration between NNSA, its three national weapons labs, and DOE's DOE's Office of Science.

    Recommendation: To ensure that NNSA can more effectively manage the development and implementation of QMU, the Administrator of NNSA should establish a formal requirement for conducting annual, technical reviews of the scientific research conducted by the weapons laboratories that supports the development and implementation of QMU.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has taken two actions that effectively implement this recommendation. First, the Fiscal Years 2010-2014 Stockpile Stewardship Plan lists significant "quantification of margins and uncertainties" (QMU)-related goals within the the Predictive Capability Framework(PCF). The PCF and specific QMU activities provides a roadmap that identifies long-term stockpile goals requiring tight integration between the Science, Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC), Inertial Confinement Fusion Ignition and High Yield, and Engineering Campaigns. Second, NNSA has issued a new Tri-lab QMU policy that establishes common definitions

    Recommendation: To ensure that NNSA can more effectively manage the development and implementation of QMU, the Administrator of NNSA should develop an integrated plan for implementing QMU that contains (1) clear, consistent, and realistic milestones for the development and implementation of QMU across the weapons complex and (2) formal requirements for certifying the completion of these milestones.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its National Labs have taken a number of actions that positively respond to GAO's recommendation for enhanced collaboration on "quantification of margins and uncertainties" (QMU). Actions include annual strategic planning meetings with the labs where QMU is discussed; annual site visits to the labs where QMU is covered; the annual assessment process where the labs exhaustively examine the safety and reliability of the stockpile using, in part, QMU methodologies; formal meetings between the labs and DOE's Office of Science; periodic reviews with STRATCOM; and major formal reviews by the National Academy of Sciences and the JASONs which facilitated better collaboration between the three major weapons laboratories.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the weapons laboratories will have the proper tools in place to support the continued assessment of the existing stockpile or the certification of redesigned nuclear components under the RRW program, the Administrator of NNSA should establish a formal requirement for periodic collaboration between the three weapons laboratories to increase their mutual understanding of the development and implementation of QMU.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In addition to GAO, the National Academy of Sciences and the JASONs have viewed this recommendation as critical. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has been in the process of updating its Tri-Lab "quantification of margins and uncertainties" (QMU) policy for over a year as a way to respond to this recommendation. However, in its quarterly DARTS updates, NNSA has repeatedly missed its deadlines for completing the update of this policy.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the weapons laboratories will have the proper tools in place to support the continued assessment of the existing stockpile or the certification of redesigned nuclear components under the RRW program, the Administrator of NNSA should require the three weapons laboratories to formally document an agreed upon, technical description of the QMU methodology that clearly recognizes and reconciles any methodological differences.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has introduced a number of features in the recent performance evaluation plans (PEPs) for Sandia, Livermore, and Los Alamos National Labs that allow "quantification of margins and uncertainties" (QMU) to be measured and linked to specific QMU milestones (Livermore) or linked to broader milestones such as the predictive capability framework, boost phase initiative, and advanced certification in which QMU plays a major analytical role (Los Alamos, Sandia). In addition, NNSA has revised the Office of Management and Budget PART measure that is related to QMU, which allows QMU to be more closely tracked.

    Recommendation: To ensure that NNSA can more effectively manage the development and implementation of QMU, the Administrator of NNSA should revise the performance evaluation plans for the three weapons laboratories so that they contain annual performance targets that can be measured and linked to specific milestones related to QMU.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 30, 2014

Sep 25, 2014

Sep 23, 2014

Sep 19, 2014

Sep 18, 2014

Sep 10, 2014

Sep 9, 2014

Sep 8, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here