Nuclear Weapons:

Improvements Needed to DOE's Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Surveillance Program

RCED-96-216: Published: Jul 31, 1996. Publicly Released: Aug 19, 1996.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Department of Energy's (DOE) Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Surveillance program, focusing on DOE efforts to get the testing program on schedule.

GAO found that: (1) DOE is behind schedule in conducting flight tests, nonnuclear system laboratory tests, and nuclear and nonnuclear component laboratory tests; (2) these schedule slippages are a result of unapproved safety studies, suspended testing at certain nuclear facilities, and inappropriate transfer of testing functions; (3) DOE has reduced its plan for testing the Air Force's intercontinental ballistic missiles from three tests per year to two tests per year; (4) flight testing of W88 warheads is suspended until a safety study plan is approved; (5) DOE has taken actions to increase the number of stockpile surveillance tests, but DOE does not have formal contingency plans for continuous stockpile testing; (6) one DOE facility is unable to conduct surveillance tests due to procedural safety problems; (7) DOE uses the Stockpile Management Preferred Alternative Report to determine alternative locations for weapons testing depending on the nature of the problem at the original testing facility, length and time of the outage, and particular weapon involved; and (8) DOE prefers to develop a specific plan of action after testing problems occur to confront the wide range of problems and variables involved in the surveillance testing process.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its January 29, 1997, response, DOE provided a written plan designed to demonstrate the actions necessary to fully recover the stockpile surveillance testing schedule with programmatic requirements. Included in the plans are laboratory tests of key components such as pits, secondaries, detonators, and gas transfer systems. DOE states that with pits back on schedule, it projects that the backlog of secondaries will be eliminated in fiscal year 1999. Further, DOE is confident the detonator backlog will be eliminated in fiscal year 1997. DOE estimates the gas transfer system backlog will be eliminated during a transition of operations from an interim to a permanent facility in fiscal year 2000. DOE's plan also addresses getting flight testing back on schedule for three weapons systems i.e., W88 by February 1998, W78 by fiscal year 1998, and a decision to be made on the W62 in fiscal year 1997.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs to develop detailed written plans to restore stockpile surveillance tests to schedule.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE states that, historically, its weapons production and surveillance testing has had minimal redundancy. Given today's regulatory, economic, fiscal, and political realities, DOE states that it does not intend to invest the resources necessary to fully document, plan, or implement a wide variety of low probability scenarios. Instead, DOE chose to develop what it calls specific cost-effective solutions to specific problems. Should production or testing disruptions occur at certain major facilities, DOE outlines six recovery operations critical to its weapons program. DOE presents six hypothetical surveillance capability problems that could impact its nuclear weapons program with varying degrees of operational recovery that range from as little as 1 year to as long as 10 years.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs to develop contingency plans for testing facilities to provide for continued testing operations in the event that a testing facility is shut down for an extended period of time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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