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Nuclear Weapons: Actions Needed by NNSA to Clarify Dismantlement Performance Goal

GAO-14-449 Published: Apr 30, 2014. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 2014.
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What GAO Found

How the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) measures progress toward its performance goal of dismantling all weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009 by the end of fiscal year 2022 is unclear for two reasons. First, NNSA does not track the actual date that dismantled weapons were retired and may be counting some dismantled weapons retired after fiscal year 2009 as equivalent to weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009. Second, NNSA will not dismantle some weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009 but will reinstate them to the stockpile to save on rebuilding other weapons and count the reinstated weapons as equivalent dismantlements. Having clear goals and measures is a key element of program management. Because the dismantlement performance goal does not make these practices clear, NNSA risks providing misleading information about progress related to its goal.

NNSA has a schedule for future weapon dismantlements but has not scheduled for dismantlement any weapons to be removed from the stockpile resulting from implementation of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). These weapons are not expected to be retired until the late 2020s or early 2030s. The deferred retirement of these weapons could result in a significant dismantlement workload gap during the mid-2020s. Such a gap could result in the loss of certified dismantlement personnel because dismantlement technicians at Pantex lose their certifications if they have not worked on a weapon type in the past year. By extending the fiscal year 2022 dismantlement performance goal, NNSA could allow the current dismantlement workload to be leveled and extended through the mid-2020s to sustain its dismantlement workforce.

The physical capacity at the Pantex Plant in Texas should be sufficient to meet NNSA's planned dismantlement workload and other stockpile commitments through fiscal year 2022. According to NNSA officials and Pantex site contractors, the site's ability to significantly accelerate its dismantlement rates and complete planned workload earlier than fiscal year 2022 could be costly, and it is unclear whether the site would have sufficient capacity to do so.

GAO identified policy and technical challenges complicating NNSA's disassembly and disposition of nuclear and nonnuclear components from dismantled nuclear weapons. For instance, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee disassembles canned subassemblies (CSA)—a major nuclear component that can contain highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is uranium enriched in the isotope uranium-235 to 20 percent or greater. NNSA is retaining many CSAs, leaving far fewer of them for disassembly, and creating challenges for Y-12's ability to plan its disassembly workload. However, NNSA bases its retention decisions on national security considerations and not Y-12 workload. Moreover, NNSA's ability to effectively manage a contingency inventory of millions of nonnuclear components at Pantex is complicated by decisions to retain many components for potential reuse in weapons, including old parts for weapons no longer in the stockpile, and by limitations in Pantex's previous component inventory management system. GAO is not making a recommendation on these matters because of efforts already under way at Pantex to address the need to retain older parts and to upgrade its component inventory management system.

Why GAO Did This Study

NNSA is responsible for the nation's nuclear weapons programs. As part of this mission, it oversees dismantlement of retired nuclear weapons and disposition of their components. Dismantlement occurs at NNSA's Pantex Plant, and disassembly of CSAs from dismantled weapons occurs at the Y-12 site. GAO was asked to assess NNSA's weapons dismantlement and component disposition efforts.

This report examines, among other things, (1) how NNSA measures progress toward its fiscal year 2022 dismantlement performance goal, as well as any challenges it might face in achieving the goal; (2) the schedule for and any challenges in dismantling weapons to be retired as a result of the New START treaty; (3) physical capacity available at Pantex to meet or accelerate planned dismantlement workload; and (4) any challenges in disassembling and disposing of weapon components. GAO analyzed NNSA's future dismantlement schedule, observed weapons dismantlement and component disposition activities at Pantex and Y-12, and interviewed NNSA officials. This report summarizes the findings of GAO's classified report on nuclear weapons dismantlement.


GAO recommends that NNSA (1) clarify the dismantlement performance goal and (2) consider extending the goal to avoid a dismantlement workload gap. NNSA generally agreed with these recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Nuclear Security Administration The NNSA Administrator should revise the dismantlement performance goal to clarify that NNSA intends to dismantle all weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009, or an equivalent number of weapons, by the end of fiscal year 2022 or an updated deadline, to reflect that NNSA may be counting some dismantled weapons retired after fiscal year 2009 as equivalent to weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009, and is counting some reinstated weapons as being equivalent dismantlements.
Closed – Implemented
In August 2016, NNSA officials told us that they were in the process of revising the performance measure and at the "next opportunity" would revise the measure in the President's budget request and other NNSA documentation so that the dismantlement goal aligns with our recommendation. In May 2017, NNSA released its fiscal year 2018 budget request, which included the updated dismantlement goal of completing dismantlement by fiscal year 2021 of the quantity of weapons in retired status at the end of fiscal year 2008. This change in the measure is consistent with our recommendation.
National Nuclear Security Administration The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator should reevaluate and consider extending the fiscal year 2022 dismantlement performance goal, to account for the uncertainties about when weapons currently in managed retirement will be released for dismantlement, and to avoid a potential dismantlement workload gap due to the deferred retirement of large numbers of additional weapons following entry into force of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Closed – Implemented
In August 2016, NNSA officials told us that the agency took actions, beginning in the summer of 2014, to address our recommendation. Specifically, NNSA officials told us that the recommendation led to development of a new classified NNSA plan that restructures future dismantlement workload; this restructuring will allow a for a more balanced dismantlement workload at NNSA's Pantex Plant (where nuclear weapons are dismantled) that minimizes workload gaps, and which will allow NNSA to meet a new performance goal of dismantling all weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009 by the end of fiscal year 2021. In August 2016, NNSA officials provided us with a classified briefing on the new plan, which is incorporated in a draft classified NNSA report, titled "Assessment of the Pantex Workload and Weapon Dismantlement Options," that is in the process of receiving final approval from NNSA senior management. While details of the new plan are classified, the NNSA officials explained the new proposed dismantlement schedule, and presented supporting data showing how the new plan will allow NNSA to maintain a balanced workload and avoid significant dismantlement workload gaps in the future while achieving the updated dismantlement performance goal.

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