Nuclear Weapons: Annual Assessment of the Safety, Performance, and Reliability of the Nation's Stockpile

GAO-07-243R Published: Feb 02, 2007. Publicly Released: Mar 05, 2007.
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In 1992, the United States began a unilateral moratorium on the underground testing of nuclear weapons. Prior to the moratorium, underground nuclear testing was a critical component for evaluating and certifying nuclear warheads. In 1993, the Department of Energy (DOE), at the direction of the President and the Congress, established the Stockpile Stewardship Program to increase understanding of the basic phenomena associated with nuclear weapons, provide better predictive understanding of the safety and reliability of weapons, and ensure a strong scientific and technical basis for future United States nuclear weapons policy objectives. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized agency within DOE, is now responsible for carrying out the Stockpile Stewardship Program. In 1995, the President established an annual stockpile assessment and reporting requirement to help ensure that the nation's nuclear weapons remained safe and reliable without underground nuclear testing. Subsequently, the Congress enacted into law the requirement for an annual stockpile assessment (annual assessment) process in section 3141 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003. Specifically, section 3141 requires that the Secretaries of Energy and Defense submit a package of reports on the results of their annual assessment to the President by March 1 of each year. The President must forward the reports to the Congress by March 15. These reports are prepared individually by the directors of the three DOE weapons laboratories--Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL)--and by the Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), who is responsible for targeting nuclear weapons within the Department of Defense (DOD). The reports provide each official's assessment of the safety, reliability, and performance of each weapon type in the nuclear stockpile. In addition, the Commander of USSTRATCOM assesses the military effectiveness of the stockpile. The Secretaries of Energy and Defense are required to submit these reports unaltered to the President, along with the conclusions the Secretaries have reached as to the safety, reliability, performance, and military effectiveness of the nuclear stockpile. The Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC), a joint DOD/DOE organization that coordinates nuclear weapons activities between the two departments, supports the two Secretaries in fulfilling their responsibility to inform the President if a return to underground nuclear testing is required to address any issues identified with the stockpile. Congress asked us to describe the processes that DOE and DOD have established for fulfilling the requirements of the annual assessment. To determine this process, we reviewed the major reports and briefings generated during the annual assessment cycles for 2005 and 2006, including the reports generated by the weapons laboratories and USSTRATCOM. We also interviewed DOE and DOD officials, including representatives from NNSA, each weapons laboratory, USSTRATCOM, the NWC, the Air Force, the Navy, and the U.S. Nuclear Command and Control System Support Staff. In addition, we interviewed former National Security Council staff and staff associated with the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services to obtain the perspective of the end users of the annual assessment reports.

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