Nuclear Weapons:

Additional Actions Could Help Improve Management of Activities Involving Explosive Materials

GAO-19-449: Published: Jun 17, 2019. Publicly Released: Jun 17, 2019.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Allison Bawden
(202) 512-3841
bawdena@gao.gov

 

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

The National Nuclear Security Administration works with contractors to design and make explosive materials for nuclear weapons.

Challenges to carrying out this work include:

Deteriorating conditions in many labs and other facilities

Dwindling supplies of specialized explosive materials

Delayed security clearances for new staff

NNSA did issue a plan to address these challenges. But it didn't follow strategic planning practices that ensure accountability over progress. For example, it generally didn't include measurable performance goals that identify timeframes and responsible parties.

Our recommendations address this and other concerns.

One deteriorating NNSA facility covers explosives analysis equipment with plastic to protect it from rainwater

Machines—some freestanding, and others on lab tables—all covered with plastic sheeting and tape

Machines—some freestanding, and others on lab tables—all covered with plastic sheeting and tape

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Allison Bawden
(202) 512-3841
bawdena@gao.gov

 

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

What GAO Found

Five National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) contractor-operated sites conduct activities to design and produce explosive materials. There are about 100 different nuclear weapon components that contain explosive materials (see figure). Each site assumes primary responsibility for certain activities, but most activities require collaboration by multiple sites, according to NNSA officials and contractor representatives. In 2018, NNSA began adopting a centralized approach to managing these activities and coordinating them across its sites.

Key Explosive-Containing Components in a Generic Nuclear Weapon

Key Explosive-Containing Components in a Generic Nuclear Weapon

Notes: Symbols do not show actual designs. Detonators enable components to function. Main charges compress the nuclear core, or pit, creating a nuclear reaction. Neutron generators facilitate the reaction, which can be enhanced by gas transfer systems that inject gases into the pit. Arming, fuzing, firing, and surety systems ensure that weapons will operate safely, securely, and reliably and only when authorized. Spin rocket motors perform an arming function in nuclear bombs.

NNSA officials and contractor representatives identified several challenges related to explosives activities, such as the agency's dwindling supply of explosive materials, aging and deteriorating infrastructure, and difficulty recruiting and training qualified staff. For example, only a single container of one specialized material remains. NNSA officials and contractor representatives indicated that the agency is taking some actions to address these challenges, such as working to replenish the supply of dwindling, highly specialized materials.

NNSA's strategic plan for explosives activities addresses some of the challenges agency officials and contractor representatives have identified, and NNSA followed several key leading practices in developing its strategic plan. However, some of the plan's elements have not been fully developed consistent with selected leading practices. For instance, the plan does not include a fully developed mission statement, and some performance goals are not quantifiable. NNSA officials stated that they are aware of the strategic plan's limitations and that they released it quickly to ensure that the explosives community could use it as soon as possible. NNSA officials said that they intend to revise the strategic plan in the next year or so. As NNSA revises its strategic plan, by including fully developed elements of an effective strategic plan, NNSA would help make the strategic plan more useful in measuring goal achievement and assessing accountability.

Why GAO Did This Study

NNSA is responsible for the management and security of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. NNSA has ongoing and planned efforts to modernize nearly all of the weapons in the stockpile, which require new explosive components. The production of some key explosives ceased in the early 1990s, and much of the infrastructure supporting this work is aging, making it expensive and difficult to maintain.

The Senate Report accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 included a provision for GAO to review NNSA's high explosive capabilities specific to nuclear weapons. This report examines (1) explosives activities that NNSA and its sites conduct and how NNSA manages them; (2) challenges NNSA officials and contractor representatives identified in conducting these activities and the extent to which NNSA has taken actions to address them; and (3) the extent to which NNSA's strategic plan for explosives activities describes further actions, if any, to address the challenges identified and follows leading practices for strategic planning. GAO reviewed NNSA documents related to explosives activities, including its strategic plan; compared the plan with leading practices; and interviewed NNSA officials and site representatives.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations, including that NNSA, as it revises its strategic plan for explosives activities, include fully developed elements of an effective strategic plan. NNSA agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Allison Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or bawdena@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: NNSA's Energetic Materials Enterprise Manager and relevant NNSA officials and contractor representatives at NNSA sites should take steps to improve the accuracy of FIMS data related to NNSA's infrastructure supporting explosives activities. These steps should include reviewing and updating information about associations of assets with primary and secondary explosives missions; ensuring that those who provide asset information to FIMS administrators understand the data they need to provide; and clarifying how to accurately enter information in FIMS for explosives assets that are not buildings. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: NNSA's Energetic Materials Enterprise Manager, in consultation with members of NNSA's Energetics Coordinating Committee, should, as the agency revises its Defense Programs Strategic Plan for Energetic Materials, include discussion of identified challenges related to explosives activities, such as data quality, workforce levels, and safety as well as any actions to address them, as appropriate, or document the rationale for why identified challenges were not included. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: NNSA's Energetic Materials Enterprise Manager, in consultation with members of NNSA's Energetics Coordinating Committee, should, as the agency revises its Defense Programs Strategic Plan for Energetic Materials, include fully developed elements of an effective strategic plan, such as a clearly identified mission statement and performance goals that are quantifiable, set time frames for completion, and list responsible parties to carry out specific activities for all strategic goals. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Oct 23, 2019

Oct 16, 2019

Sep 26, 2019

Sep 24, 2019

Sep 9, 2019

Aug 8, 2019

Jul 29, 2019

May 20, 2019

May 1, 2019

Apr 17, 2019

Looking for more? Browse all our products here