The second of the two launches on June 21 apparently flew successfully, but followed an unusual trajectory. It splashed down into the Sea of Japan at a range of only 400 km from the launch site, but was highly lofted so that it reached an altitude of 1,400 km.
Using this trajectory allowed North Korea to test the missile from its military launch site on the country’s east coast without flying over Japan, since the Musudan’s range on a standard trajectory is about twice as great as the distance from North Korea to Japan (Fig. 1). A past overflight of Japan caused serious international tensions and it seems likely this launch was intended to test the missile while avoiding that.
Range of the Musudan missile
Knowing the range and maximum altitude of the test flight allows us to estimate the range of the Musudan if it were launched on a standard trajectory.
I put together a computer model of the missile based on estimates of parameters like thrust, engine burntime, payload, etc. I then adjusted those parameters to give a range of 400 km with an apogee of 1,400 km. Using those same parameters, I then calculated what the maximum range of that missile would be if flown on a non-lofted trajectory. The result of that calculation is shown in Fig. 2.
That calculation shows that the Musudan’s range would be about 3,000 km on a standard “minimum-energy” (MET) trajectory, assuming the same payload as the lofted test.
This is an interesting result because it is significantly shorter than many estimates of the Musudan range. For example, this WikiLeaks document gives an official US range estimate of 4,000 km with a 500 kg payload.
I have long been skeptical of those range claims. The Musudan is believed to be based on a Soviet submarine-launched missile, the SSN-6, which the Koreans have lengthened to carry more fuel and increase its range. My analysis based on the performance of the SSN-6 suggests instead a Musudan range of about 3,500 km with a 500 kg payload, and about 3,000 km with a 750 kg payload.
We don’t, of course, know what payload was used on the test. Maybe the missile carried a much heavier payload than 500 kg. But it would make sense for North Korea to conduct the test with the payload it would expect the missile to carry if it was actually used. For example, the reentry heating on a 4,000 km range missile would be nearly 40% higher than on a 3,000 km range missile, given the higher reentry speed. So the North would want to test on the equivalent of a 4,000 km range trajectory if it expected to fly the missile to that distance.
The 3,000 km range is also interesting since it is shorter than the distance to Guam, which is about 3,400 km (Fig. 3). Being able to reach Guam is seen as a key motivation for the Musudan since Guam has a US military base and is the next logical target for North Korea after its development of the Nodong missile to reach Japan.
If this test reflects the state of the art of North Korea’s missile and warhead technology it could mean that North Korea’s nuclear warhead is currently too heavy for the Musudan to carry it to Guam.
The “failure” of the first launch on June 21
Reports state that the first missile launched on June 21 broke up at a range of about 150 km and fell into the sea. That may have resulted from a simple mechanical failure, although it is not clear what would have caused it at that point in the flight.
There may be another possibility. It is unclear from press reports whether or not this missile was also flown on a lofted trajectory. If it was instead flown on a standard trajectory, it is interesting that 150 km range corresponds roughly to burnout of the Musudan engines (see red dot in Fig. 2).
Is it possible that Pyongyang launched the first missile on a standard trajectory to test the guidance and control system, and then intentionally terminated the flight following burnout to keep it from overflying Japan? That would allow them to test on a standard trajectory the guidance and control systems that operate in the early part of flight. The second test on the lofted trajectory would allow them to test the operation of the reentry heat shield in the later part of the flight. We discuss that more in Part 2 of this post.
So it would be very useful to know what trajectory the first missile followed.]]>
The classified study, “Technical Considerations for the Evolving U.S. Nuclear-Weapons Stockpile,” was completed in January 2015 after Congress mandated in the fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill that the NNSA engage JASON to study the 3+2 plan. As it often does, JASON produced an unclassified executive summary with its report, including a short version of their findings and recommendations. It wasn’t until yesterday, however, a year and a half after the study was completed and six months after UCS requested a copy that the NNSA finally released the unclassified summary.
UCS has long been critical of the 3+2 plan, which will replace the existing four missile warheads—the W78s and W87s on land-based missiles, and the W76s and W88s on sub-based missiles—with three “interoperable” warheads. It will also supplant 4-5 versions of the B61 gravity bomb with one while updating the W80 warhead for the air-launched cruise missile, making two weapons for the air leg. Hence the plan is called “3+2.” As initially described in the NNSA FY2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, each of the interoperable warheads will have “a common NEP [nuclear explosive package, the fissile core of a nuclear weapon] integrated with non-nuclear systems that maximize the use of common and adaptable components” that can be used on either land-based or sub-based missiles.
Many of our findings are reflected in the JASON executive summary, which may help explain why the NNSA was so slow to release it. Highlights similar to UCS findings include:
The JASON study had additional troubling findings:
In light of these findings, JASON made two recommendations:
In short, JASON seems unconvinced of the value of the 3+2 plan as currently laid out, and believes much more study is required. Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable feature of the executive summary is the lack of clear praise for any part of the 3+2 program. That may be the most telling indictment of this flawed and risky approach and—we hope—a bellwether that the proposal will be abandoned before further time and resources are wasted on it.]]>
This “dilute and dispose” (D&D) approach is a significant improvement over what has been the plan for more than a decade: mix the plutonium with uranium to produce mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for commercial nuclear reactors and dispose of the resulting spent fuel in a geological repository.
The facility that would produce the MOX nuclear fuel is under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The United States has already spent some $4.5 billion for construction, and tens of billions of dollars more would be required to complete the project and dispose of the plutonium.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has long opposed the MOX program because putting plutonium in commercial nuclear fuel that would be shipped around the country greatly increases the vulnerability of this weapons-usable material to theft. The new D&D approach would be safer—as well as simpler, quicker, and likely far less expensive—than the current program.
The rising cost estimates that have dogged the MOX program have driven the Obama administration to look at alternative approaches. In 2002, the DOE estimated the full cost of the program at $5 billion (in constant 2015 dollars). In 2014, the GAO cited a 2013 DOE estimate of $24 billion, but then later in 2014 the DOE suggested a $30 billion life cycle cost. In early 2015, the Aerospace corporation, an independent consultant hired by the DOE, concluded the cost could be between $50 billion and $114 billion (!?!) in constant dollars.
The most recent look at alternatives for disposing of plutonium, a Senate-mandated “Red Team” study led by Thom Mason of Oak Ridge National Lab, questioned the high end of that estimate. They found that the MOX program would cost $700-800 million per year and some 30 years to complete, while the D&D approach would require about $400 million per year over roughly the same period of time. Equally important, the Red Team noted that the MOX program has a “high level of technical complexity and risk” while the D&D approach is “relatively simple” and there is reason to believe the “political and regulatory risks could be successfully managed.”
Congress Gets Its Say
Unfortunately, Congress has yet to endorse the DOE’s new plan, at least not explicitly. The House Energy & Water appropriations subcommittee took the strongest position, soundly rejecting the DOE proposal to allocate $270 million for shutting down the MOX program. Instead it increased the allocation to $340 million and mandated that the money go toward continued construction of the MOX plant. The subcommittee did, however, authorize a National Academy of Sciences study to examine the dilute and dispose approach. Despite the plethora of existing studies, this is a reasonable idea. The Academy’s technical gravitas may help bring closure to the issue.
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) also stipulated that construction of the MOX plant continue, but it offered the administration a waiver that would allow DOE to instead pursue the D&D alternative. The waiver, which is complicated but achievable, comprises a four-part submission to Congress:
The fourth criterion reveals the committee’s underlying support for dropping the MOX program. As noted above, the Red Team report estimated that the D&D approach would “cost roughly half the cost of the MOX program”—just as the HASC requires.
On the Senate side, the Energy & Water appropriators decided to duck the issue. They announced that they would let the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which writes the National Defense Authorization Act, decide the fate of the administration’s proposal. While they provided the $270 million in funding requested by the administration, they said not a word about what to do with the money.
We will not know what the SASC will do until after it releases its bill, which will not happen before mid-May. There are rumors that Sen. McCain, the Republican chair of the SASC and a long-time opponent of government waste, isn’t happy with the MOX program or the D&D alternative, as the price tag for either option is significantly greater than the early cost estimates for disposing of this excess plutonium. I would hope he recognizes that $400 million per year is a lot less than $800 million per year.
Problems to Address
Given the significant cost savings predicted for the dilute and dispose approach, as well as the reduced technical risk, why is Congress not jumping on the D&D bandwagon? There are four main reasons.
1) The only existing geological repository–the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico—has been shut down since 2014 when a single waste drum buried underground overheated and released small quantities of radioactive material. Prior to this shut down, WIPP had been operating for years as a disposal site for so-called “transuranic” waste, including plutonium diluted with other materials that is similar to the diluted plutonium that would be produced under the D&D plan.
The DOE hopes to resume partial operations at WIPP by the end of this year by moving at least one waste container temporarily stored above ground at the site to the excavated underground permanent storage area. However, fixing and enhancing the ventilation system at WIPP continues to be a challenge, and activists in New Mexico doubt the DOE will achieve its goal any time soon. The good news is that there is time, since under the new D&D plan DOE would not begin shipping diluted plutonium to WIPP until 2021 at the earliest.
2) Even if WIPP can be reopened, it is not certain that all of the 34 tons of plutonium declared excess to U.S. military needs will be able to fit in the currently allowed underground storage spaces. The volume of transuranic waste WIPP can accept is limited by the federal WIPP Land Withdrawal Act. My colleague Ed Lyman did an extensive analysis of options for storage at WIPP. Our current judgment is that it would be possible to emplace most, if not all, of the diluted plutonium at WIPP without changing the Land Withdrawal Act. The Red Team report also concluded there were “techniques for disposal efficiency” that might obviate the need to amend the law.However, the DOE is unwilling to state that all or most of the plutonium can be placed in WIPP (assuming it opens) until it does due diligence on required environmental reviews. So when the DOE discusses the D&D plan, it talks about “WIPP or a WIPP-like facility” as its preferred option for disposal.
3) Russia may object to the revised U.S. approach. As mentioned above, in 2000, the United States and Russia signed an agreement that committed each country to dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium. In 2010, the agreement was altered to allow both Russia and the United States to modify the approaches they would take to dispose of their plutonium. The Obama administration correctly states that the United States can change its disposal approach without renegotiating the agreement, which allows for the parties to change their disposition methods, but both parties must consent to the new plan.
And the most recent signs from Moscow are not good, with President Putin criticizing the dilute and dispose option. A Russian spokesperson provided a reason for Putin’s objection, claiming that the new approach would still allow the plutonium to be used for a nuclear weapon. Specifically, the spokesperson asserted that, if the United States ever extracted the diluted material from the geological repository, because dilution does not change the plutonium’s “isotopic composition,” it would still be weapons-usable.However, the Russian argument is flawed. It is true that the plutonium could be recovered and used for nuclear weapons, but that would be the case even if the isotopic composition was changed. As my colleague Edwin Lyman and Frank von Hippel of Princeton University explain in this memo, changing the isotopic content of the plutonium would not pose a significant barrier to either the United States or Russia should they decide to reuse it in weapons.Nonetheless, as the memo explains, there is a straightforward way to simultaneously address Russia’s objection and help two U.S. allies, Japan and the United Kingdom. Both countries are looking for a path to dispose of their excess plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel. Mixing a small fraction of their plutonium with the plutonium from the U.S. weapons program would alleviate Russia’s concerns, while still leaving the D&D approach simpler and less expensive than the MOX plan.
4) The final problem the administration faces may be its greatest challenge, and that is the political support the pork-rich MOX program has generated, particularly in South Carolina. Senator Lindsey Graham has made extending the MOX program his highest goal, and has argued at every available opportunity, loudly and vociferously, against the administration’s new proposal. He has the support of other politicians in South Carolina, including some Democrats. They have two main goals: getting plutonium out of South Carolina (a reasonable proposition) while keeping federal tax dollars flowing into the state. The latter goal seems to have the higher priority.
As noted above, some $4.5 billion has already been invested in the MOX plant, and tens of billions more would be required to complete the project. However, as described above, the level of funding required to complete the MOX plant is more than Congress is willing to spend, particularly when a cheaper options is available. It is only a matter of time before the MOX project is abandoned.In that light, my colleague Ed Lyman has developed a proposal for an alternate use for the unfinished MOX building, and one that should be very attractive to in-state supporters. He suggests that the building could be used as a nuclear security center of excellence and international training center. As Ed notes, the MOX plant “is a nearly complete, industrial-scale building designed to meet stringent security requirements, making it an ideal site for a nuclear security training center that could help reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and preserve the site’s economic value. Nuclear security forces from around the world could develop and test strategies at the MOX complex for defending sites from terrorist groups seeking to steal nuclear-weapons-usable materials or cause a radiological disaster via sabotage.”
In sum, there are solutions to the problems that the DOE faces in shifting to the dilute and dispose approach. They are not necessarily quick or easy, but they are still quicker and easier than the deeply flawed MOX approach. In the end, it may not be this year that Congress accepts the new plan, but the change is coming.
Featured photo: Geological salt beds at WIPP, Nuclear Regulatory Commission.]]>
Particularly since former Secretary of Defense William Perry publicly called on President Obama to cancel it, the new cruise missile has become controversial. Critics, including me, contend that it is a redundant and destabilizing system designed explicitly for nuclear war-fighting and therefore contrary to U.S. interests. Supporters argue that the system merely replaces an existing cruise missile and is required for specific targets that, because they are classified, cannot be identified.
The debate has emerged while the system is still in a relatively early stage of development. The brief Kendall report, requested by Congress out of a desire for more information on the new weapon, is pretty standard fare except for this sentence:
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2014 Nuclear Enterprise Review committed to maintaining a viable standoff nuclear deterrent for the air leg of the nuclear Triad and noted sustainment challenges for the AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), a system initially fielded in the 1980s.
The emphasis is added because the words emphasized are flat out wrong. Neither of those documents talks about “maintaining a viable standoff nuclear deterrent.”
On the contrary, the 2010 NPR says this about cruise missiles:
In addition, the Air Force will conduct an assessment of alternatives to inform decisions in FY 2012 about whether and (if so) how to replace the current air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which will reach the end of its service life later in the next decade.
Again, emphasis added, because it does not say what Under Secretary Kendall says it does. The most important word is “whether.” There is no commitment to replace the ALCM in the NPR. None, full stop.
A quick word search of the 2014 Nuclear Enterprise Review shows it also says nothing about maintaining “viable standoff.” In fact, what it does mention is some “public attack on the need for the cruise missile carrying B-52 force”.
Furthermore, the 2013 report to Congress on nuclear weapons employment strategy does not include anything about a requirement for a standoff capability or the need for a cruise missile. That vital document is the public update on how the Obama administration is implementing the 2010 NPR. It talks about maintaining the triad and keeping heavy bombers, but no mention is made of U.S. cruise missiles.
There is one document to which the Under Secretary might have referred that arguably offered support for the new cruise missile. The 2011 message President Obama sent to the Senate after its 2010 consent to ratification of New START stated:
I intend to (a) modernize or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems: a heavy bomber and air-launched cruise missile, an ICBM, and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and SLBM; and (b) maintain the United States rocket motor industrial base.
That says “modernize or replace” but “replace” does not necessarily mean “build a new cruise missile.” Replace can mean “replace the air-launched cruise missile with a stealthy penetrating bomber and a gravity bomb.” Semantics aside, the president’s 2011 statement was followed, as noted above, by the 2013 nuclear employment strategy and the 2014 Nuclear Enterprise Review, neither of which committed to a future nuclear air-launched cruise missile.
In a related point, note that the Air Force never conducted the NPR-directed assessment of alternatives to address the question of “whether and (if so) how” to replace the existing nuclear-armed cruise missile. They did conduct an assessment of options for developing a new cruise missile, which led to the design for the LRSO, but they did not look at alternatives to the cruise missile, and whether the nuclear-armed cruise missile could be replaced by other systems.
The lack of such an assessment may be one of the reasons the Under Secretary of Defense has to cite non-existent arguments to try to build support for the program.
Note: Politico Pro reported on this issue, kindly quoting me, but it is behind a paywall.
A Russian spokesman elaborated on Russia’s objections to the proposed “dilute and dispose” approach, arguing that the “only way to irreversibly turn plutonium into a material not usable in a nuclear weapon is by changing its isotope composition. Any chemical method is reversible.”
U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, who oppose the Obama administration’s new plan because of their staunch support for the old plan–to complete construction of an enormously expensive factory in their state to incorporate the plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear reactor fuel — seized on Russia’s objections as a reason to stick with the MOX approach.
However, the argument provided by the Russians to oppose the new plan does not hold up to scrutiny. As explained by my colleague Dr. Edwin Lyman and Dr. Frank von Hippel of Princeton University in this memo, changing the isotopic composition of the plutonium would not render either Russia or the United States incapable of using the material in nuclear weapons should they decide to do so. Other factors, including prompt burial in an underground repository and international monitoring, will be far more important to keeping us all safe.
Nevertheless, the memo describes a relatively straightforward solution to Russia’s concern: mixing the U.S. plutonium with reactor-grade plutonium imported from the United Kingdom or Japan, which both also happen to be looking for a disposal path for their excess plutonium.
While more complicated that simple dilution and disposal, this option would still be cheaper than the MOX plan. So supporters of the MOX program shouldn’t use this Russian red herring as a reason to keep their pork project alive.
See the memo for a more detailed explanation, and a wealth of footnotes. For an alternative use for the partially completed MOX plant in South Carolina, see our proposal to turn it into a a nuclear security training center of excellence.]]>
The key takeaway from this year’s stockpile plan is that very little has changed since last year. The overall vision has not changed, the schedule has not shifted, and the budget estimates, while modestly smaller for some projects, are still harrowingly large.
And that is a bad thing, because the NNSA’s plan has significant problems.
First among these, by a wide margin, is the plan’s over-reach. In particular, the NNSA’s “3+2” plan to replace the entire U.S. nuclear stockpile with a suite of newly designed nuclear warheads is far more aggressive that what is required. (See my colleague’s detailed report for an in-depth examination of why.)
The “2” in 3+2 refers to the two air-based weapons: the B61-12 bomb and the W80 warhead for the proposed new air-launched cruise missile. These are the first two weapons in the 3+2 plan queue, and the approach for their development and production are relatively modest (more on that later).
The “3” refers to three new “interoperable” warheads for delivery by land-based and submarine-based ballistic missiles. These would have a “common nuclear explosive package and common or adaptable non-nuclear components.” The “nuclear explosive package” (NEP) is the core of a nuclear weapon, composed of a primary and a secondary. The fission of plutonium in the primary ignites a fusion reaction in the secondary, together creating the enormously large yield of today’s nuclear weapons.
The NEP designs for all deployed weapons have been explosively tested, but under the 3+2 plan, this would change.
For the first time since the United States stopped explosive testing of nuclear weapons in 1992, the NNSA is proposing to deploy new warhead designs that would incorporate fundamental changes to the nuclear explosive package. They plan to take the primary from one warhead (the W87), and the secondary from another weapon (as yet unidentified publicly) and combine them in a new nuclear explosive package. This new NEP would not be explosively tested; instead, its performance would be validated by computer models.
Why would the NNSA do this? Because the W87 warhead deployed on U.S. land-based missiles, while widely recognized as the safest and most advanced design in the stockpile, is too large to fit on the Trident missiles carried by U.S. submarines. The U.S. Navy is not going to redesign its missiles, so the NNSA proposes to design new, smaller warheads that will fit.
In fact, the NNSA proposes three interoperable warheads that will replace all four current missile-carried warheads: the W76 and W88 on submarines and the W78 and W87 on land-based missiles. The first interoperable warhead (IW-1) is intended to replace the W78 and some portion of the W88s. Development work on the IW-1 started back in 2012, then was stopped in 2014 and is now scheduled to begin again in 2020. Production is slated to start in 2031 and run through 2043.
The schedule delay happened when the Navy revealed that it was not at all excited about the proposed interoperable warhead, while the Air Force decided to prioritize the proposed new air-launched cruise missile, which will require a life extension program for its warhead.
The first problem with the interoperable warhead proposal is the ‘mix-and-match’ approach, marrying two major nuclear components that have never been tested together. This could reduce technical confidence in the resulting weapons. JASON, an independent advisory group of scientists that has long advised the government on defense and technical issues, warned that the “. . . greatest care in the form of self-discipline will be required to avoid system modifications, even if aimed at ‘improvements,’ which may compromise reliability”.
As a result, the ‘mix-and-match’ approach could lead some to insist that the United States must “proof test” the new designs with underground nuclear explosive testing, breaking a decades-long moratorium. This would encourage other countries to resume testing, setting off a dangerous new arms race.
But even beyond the fundamental technical challenge of fielding three new, untested warhead designs, the 3+2 plan creates additional—and unnecessary—problems. First is the fact that the three “common nuclear explosive packages and common or adaptable non-nuclear components” will actually have to be six different designs, because each warhead will have to fit in the different re-entry vehicles for the submarine-based and land-based missiles. Rather than the four missile warhead types as there are now in the stockpile, there will be six designs: three interoperable warheads, each with two distinct variants.
Second—and more problematic—pursuing this approach will require the NNSA to produce in bulk new plutonium “pits,” the fissile core of the primary. The plan is to use W87 or W87-like pits in the IW-1. After New START is fully implemented in 2018, it is reasonable to assume the United States will deploy some 200 W78 warheads and keep some 200 in the hedge, and deploy roughly 400 W88 warheads (with none in the hedge). Replacing all the W78s and half the W88s will thus require some 600 IWs—and hence roughly 600 W87 pits. The United States has over 500 W87s, and after 2018, will likely deploy some 200 and have 200 in the hedge. Thus, there will be 100 W87 pits available for the IW-1. In addition, it is possible the United States would likely dismantle the 200 W87 warheads in the hedge to use the pits for the IW-1. So to meet the need for 600 W87 pits, the United States will have to manufacture 300-500 new ones before 2043.
And that will put yet another significant strain on the NNSA, which stopped producing pits in bulk in 1989, when the FBI shut down the Rocky Flats production facility for violating federal environmental laws. More recently the NNSA created a boutique production capability at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, but even that was shut down for more than two years because of safety problems and is only now resuming production of around 10 pits per year. The NNSA plans to expand this capability to 30 a year by 2030, and to 50-80 a year by 2050. Just the first step of creating a slightly larger-scale capacity to make the extra W87 pits for the IW-1 warhead will require a decade of work and a massive investment.
If the NNSA simply refurbished existing warheads rather than designing and producing the new IWs, it would not need to produce new pits. In 2006, the NNSA concluded that the existing pits in the U.S. nuclear stockpile were reliable for at least 85 years. This means that, for many years to come, the only requirement for new pits will be if the NNSA decides to field new weapons like the IW-1; there is no need to produce them now to maintain the existing stockpile.
A third problem is that the 3+2 plan would replace some portion of the deployed W88 warheads with IW-1 warheads—even though the W88s won’t need to be replaced. The W88 requires some refurbishment that has to be finished well before the IW-1 will be completed, and is now entering a more modest project (known as an Alteration, or Alt) to update a few elements and replace limited life components. The Navy successfully argued that the project should include replacing the conventional high explosives in the warhead, which a government official told me could give it a new lifespan of as long as 30 years. The new W88 warhead will be in production from 2020 to 2025. So, assuming a 30-year lifespan, they would need to be replaced by 2055. For the IW-1, the FY2017 stockpile plan notes that “initial production will go to the Air Force” (to replace W78s). But by the end of production in 2043, the NNSA would be replacing W88s that should be good for as long as 12 more years.
If the NNSA abandoned the 3+2 plan and simply took a straightforward life extension approach to maintaining the stockpile, it would avoid all of these problems. The model for this approach is the W76 life extension program, which is updating the warhead that is the bedrock of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. The W76 project, which will wrap up in 2020, is producing some 1,600 refurbished warheads, with relatively modest changes overall (and none to the nuclear explosive package), at a cost, according to the FY 2017 stockpile plan, of roughly $4 billion in FY2016 dollars.
That brings us back to the relatively modest plans for the first two weapons in the 3+2 plan. Those are the new version of the B61 gravity bomb and the update to the W80 warhead in the planned new nuclear-armed cruise missile.
The B61 life extension plan is relatively modest only in comparison to the approach for the interoperable warheads. While the NNSA is not making changes to the nuclear explosive package in the B61, it is undertaking a very far-reaching update to what will become the only gravity bomb in the U.S. stockpile. As one government official put it to me, after developing a range of options for the B61 life extension program, the NNSA ended up deciding between a Cadillac and a Maserati. (In the end, the NNSA picked the Cadillac only because it was told the Maserati was not feasible due to its inclusion of undeveloped technologies.)
With that high end approach, the cost of the B61 life extension program is dramatically more expensive than for the W76 program, while producing far fewer weapons. Less than 500 of the new gravity bombs will cost between $7 billion and $9 billion in FY 2016 dollars, roughly twice the early estimates for the project. On a per warhead basis, the W76 will cost around $2.5 million each, while the B61 will cost $20 million each (not including additional Pentagon costs).
The cost for the life extension program for the W80 warhead, to be used in the proposed new cruise missile, is unfortunately closer to the scale of the B61 than that of the W76. According to the FY2017 stockpile plan, it will cost between $6 billion and $8 billion (again in FY2016 dollars) to produce what outside experts estimate is roughly 500 updated warheads. While the NNSA has not finalized the scale of work for the W80 program, it is disappointing to see the costs are estimated to be significantly more than those for the W76.
The NNSA has a long, long history of developing far-reaching projects that end up costing far more than initially anticipated and taking far longer than planned. Many of those projects ended up being significantly scaled back; many others were cancelled outright. The technically aggressive, resource-intense 3+2 approach outlined in the FY2017 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan similarly over-reaches.
To match its capabilities and resources to what is required to maintain the stockpile, the NNSA needs to cut back the scale of its plans so that the work that has to be done can be done. In just one example, the investments needed to produce new plutonium pits for the IW program will compete with the billions of dollars and significant human resources the NNSA has to invest to update its capability to manufacture highly enriched uranium (HEU) components at the Y-12 plant in Tennessee.
Until a more manageable approach is developed throughout the NNSA’s programs, the agency risks wasting tens of billions of dollars and countless staff resources on projects that are doomed to failure, while creating unnecessary technical risk. A change is needed to an approach that devotes the needed resources to meet the required goals, with a reasonable margin of error, but nothing more.
For many years, the NNSA has produced some version of the plan almost annually, providing details on the agency’s plans and timelines, the estimated cost of work to be done, and priorities for the stockpile. For the last two years, it has produced a companion document that details its efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries and reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.
We would like to sincerely complement the NNSA on these valuable products. While even more information would be appropriate—in particular there is no reason to keep the number of U.S. nuclear weapons classified—this is a worthy contribution to public debate.
We strongly encourage the Department of Defense to produce a similar document that describes future plans for U.S. nuclear delivery vehicles. Too much information from the Pentagon is too closely guarded—many “secrets” need not be secret.
Indeed, every nuclear-armed country around the globe should be as open as the NNSA is on these important matters. If the world is ever going to address the nuclear threat and achieve the goal of elimination that presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have endorsed, vastly increased transparency will be needed.
So, thanks NNSA. While, as you might expect, we will have some critiques of your FY17 plan soon, we do appreciate the effort it takes to produce this document and the transparency that it displays.]]>
This year’s Pugwash meeting included more than 150 senior scientists and policy makers. I was one of about 30 members of the International Student Young Pugwash (ISYP) who were also in attendance, both for the main conference and for the dedicated ISYP symposium that immediately precedes these meetings. Like the Summer Symposiums organized by UCS, ISYP focuses on fostering an international network of early career specialists working in global security. ISYP includes a breadth of early career participants ranging from undergraduates to assistant professors. UCS Summer Symposium alumni were well-represented among the technical members of this year’s attendees, and made up more than 20% of the ISYP delegation. It was wonderful to reconnect with other Symposium alumni from around the world and to meet some of the newest members of the nuclear policy community.
UCS and Pugwash complement one another in their mission to integrate science and policy. The Summer Symposiums introduce technical scientists to the language and perspectives of policy and foster international connections in global security. Pugwash expands these networks to include social scientists and policymakers and strengthen intergenerational connections. These interdisciplinary meetings are especially valuable because they bridge cultural divides within the security policy community. Pugwash is immensely effective at bringing policy makers and technical specialists together in direct conversation to better inform decisions. It also promotes good-faith dialogue with representatives from states mired in conflict that can transcend political rhetoric and address substantive issues.
One example from the conference: my family-style hotel room was shared by two Iranians, one Russian, and one American, all of us newly acquainted through ISYP. While this combination of countries may sound like the setup for a political joke, in fact by the end of the week we had overcome cultural differences, developed personal connections, and left the conference as friends hoping to reconnect soon.
My first Summer Symposium in 2009 introduced me to the field of global security policy, providing me with the opportunity to apply my technical aptitude to pressing real-world problems. It gave me the motivation, perspective and network to develop my career in nuclear policy. My resulting research path led directly to my opportunity to attend Pugwash, where I have developed relationships with policy analysts, which will continue to strengthen and evolve as my generation becomes more established in the field. Conferences like the Summer Symposiums and Pugwash provide critical opportunities to develop relationships across disciplines, generations, and national boundaries, and help to sustain focus on the essential topic of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.]]>
On February 9, the Obama administration unveiled the Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, its final annual submission to Congress of this kind. In recent years, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency responsible for maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons and for helping to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, has seen its top-line budget increase even as government spending as a whole remains tightly constrained. Read More]]>
On February 9, the Obama administration unveiled the Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, its final annual submission to Congress of this kind. In recent years, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency responsible for maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons and for helping to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, has seen its top-line budget increase even as government spending as a whole remains tightly constrained.
The FY 2017 request continues that trend, with a total request of $12.9 billion for the NNSA, compared to the $12.5 billion provided in FY 2016. However, that top-line hides a trend that also continues this year: The funding for U.S. nuclear weapons programs—already the vast majority of NNSA dollars—has grown over the years, while funding for programs to halt the spread of nuclear weapons has been declining regularly.
Specifically, the FY 2017 budget request for Weapons Activities is $9.2 billion, compared to the FY 2016 budget of $8.8 billion. The FY2017 budget request for nonproliferation programs overall is $1.8 billion, whereas the FY2016 budget stood at $1.9 billion. Looking just at core nonproliferation programs, the budget shows even starker declines.
Within the reduction in the nonproliferation budget, however, is the biggest single piece of good news in this year’s NNSA budget request: The agency is proposing to terminate the program to dispose of excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program by turning it into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for power reactors. The Union of Concerned Scientists has long called for canceling the MOX program because it would make it easier for terrorists to gain access to fissile material that could be used to make a nuclear weapon.
Instead of completing a MOX fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina, the administration plans to undertake a project to dilute much of the excess plutonium and dispose of it in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) repository in New Mexico. The NNSA will begin the process with 6 metric tons of impure excess plutonium currently stored in South Carolina.
However, the agency still faces some significant hurdles before it can use the dilute-and-dispose process for an additional 34 metric tons of plutonium that the U.S. committed to dispose of via the MOX fuel route under an agreement with Russia. For example, in 2014, the Obama administration attempted to put the MOX facility in “cold standby.” Congress rejected that plan, insisted that construction continue, and provided additional funding for it. This may happen again. Also, the WIPP facility was closed in 2014 because of a radiation leak, and officials hope to reopen it by the end of 2016. Additional environmental analysis will likely be necessary. And Russia will have to agree to a change in the proposed disposition method.
Despite these obstacles, the administration appears committed to pursuing the “dilute and dispose” option. Several independent reports commissioned by the Department of Energy concluded that the cost to complete the MOX program would be significantly greater than initial estimates, and that alternative approaches to disposing of the excess plutonium would be more affordable and less risky. Their conclusions were similar to those in a January 2015 UCS report that assessed a number of safer, cheaper alternatives to MOX, including the option of diluting the plutonium and disposing of it at the WIPP facility.
To carry out its plans, the NNSA is proposing to cut the MOX budget from $340 million for construction in FY 2016 to $270 million in FY 2017, and use that money to terminate the program. The NNSA is planning to begin pre-conceptual design as soon as possible for the dilute and dispose option and complete conceptual design in FY 2017. The budget request asks for permission to use $3-5 million for this work in FY 2016 and FY2017
Unlike in past years, when for example some life extension programs were delayed or accelerated by years, there are no major changes to the nuclear weapons plans in the FY 2017 budget request. Instead, there are a few small hiccups. In particular, the ramp up in work on the life extension program for the W80 warhead, to be used in the controversial new nuclear-armed cruise missile under development, has been slipped slightly. This is because the FY 2016 funding for the program, which included a major increase, was not provided until December 2016, too late to allow the full workload for the year to be completed. As a result, rather than asking for $312 million as had been planned in last year’s request, the FY 2017 request is only for $220 million. The budget request hints at some schedule delays as well, but insists the NNSA will still deliver the first production unit by FY 20205, in order to meet the Air Force schedule for the cruise missile.
The largest program in the weapons budget continues to be the life extension program for B61 gravity bomb, and by a considerable margin. For FY 2017, the request is $616 million, down slightly from the FY 2016 budget of $643 million. In contrast, funding for the W76 life extension program is only $223 million, down from $244 million for the previous year. The B61 life extension program is much more expensive than that for the W76 warhead, even though the B61 bomb constitutes a far smaller portion of the total nuclear stockpile than the W76, which is the work horse of the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles. For comparison, reportedly 480 B61-12s are planned, while some 1,600 W76-1s are being produced. Despite that disparity in production numbers, the total cost of the B61 program is around $10 billion (or $20 million each), while the W76 will cost a more modest $4 billion (or $2.5 million each).
One positive development is implementation of a promise the Obama administration made at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference to increase by 20% the rate at which the NNSA dismantles retired nuclear weapons. As a result, the budget request for dismantlement has increased by 33%, from $52 million in FY 2016 to $69 million in FY 2017. The increase will mean that weapons already retired by 2009 will be dismantled by FY 2021, one year earlier than previous plans. However, the overall dismantlement rate, which has hovered at around 300 weapons for several years, is far below the rates of 1,000 or more warheads dismantled annually during much of the 1990s.
Aside from the good news about the MOX program described above, nonproliferation programs have faced tough times for several years running. In 2009, the Obama administration was planning to increase funding for these programs over time, from around $1.4 billion annually to $2 billion by 2014 (not including MOX funding). Instead, the top-line for core nonproliferation programs (excluding MOX) has fallen to around $1.2 billion. In part, this is a result of Russia’s lack of interest in continuing some programs combined with Congressional opposition to funding any work in Russia in light of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. NNSA officials also point to the track record of accomplishments that have addressed some of the greatest concerns about fissile materials not secured globally, a real success story.
It is also worth noting that this funding includes money to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to contain Iran’s nuclear program, one of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishments. According to officials at the NNSA, the amounts are relatively small—some $3 million in nonproliferation and arms control and $10 million in materials management budgets. The Iran deal is an enormous success at relatively low cost to the taxpayer. (Most of the cost of implementing the Iran deal is borne by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the administration’s budget requests $190 million for FY 2017 for the agency. More money will likely be required in the future to implement the JCPOA, but this burden will be shared by other partners in to the agreement.)
Efforts to rebuild the nuclear weapons complex have created lots of problems for the NNSA. The Obama administration first sought to build the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement – Nuclear Facility, a massive facility that would undertake work to support the production of new plutonium pits used in the primary of nuclear weapons. However, cost estimates for the building skyrocketed and the need for new pits was delayed significantly, so that effort collapsed.
Next the NNSA sought to move forward on the Uranium Processing Facility, which would build the components using highly enriched uranium (HEU) for the secondary of nuclear weapons. The initial budget for the project was $600 million to $1 billion, but by 2013 had increased to $6.5 billion. However, when it became clear that the existing plans had a major flaw that would require an expensive re-design and further drive up overall costs, the NNSA brought in a “red team” to look at alternative approaches. The team proposed breaking the initial phase of the project into three separate buildings, and delaying inclusion of additional capabilities until later phases. By breaking the project apart this way, the NNSA managed to keep the budget of just the three buildings in the first phase at $6.5 billion.
To complete work on the UPF redesign, the NNSA is asking for $575 million, a $145 million increase over the FY 2016 level. Over $1.5 billion dollars has been spent already on the project, and the final design is still unfinished.]]>
Specifically, pursuing the LRSO ignores the reality that nuclear weapons are no longer a security asset for the United States, but a liability that should be constrained. The LRSO, by being more capable and more “usable,” will undermine the sensible commitment that President Obama made to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy. Doing so is essential if the U.S. is to reduce the risk of nuclear use. Moreover, it is only by reducing the role of nuclear weapons that the United States can lead the world to a place where the nuclear threat is significantly limited.
What are the new or improved capabilities that the LRSO will have in comparison to the existing ALCM? Start with the handy table I put together for the Defense News piece:
|Improved Variable Yield||No||Yes|
|Multiple Delivery Platforms||No||Yes|
That is a long list of capabilities, one that deserves some explanation. Of course, specific information about the LRSO is classified, but presumably the system will be more advanced than the nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM), which was first deployed in 1990 and retired in 2007. The LRSO may also incorporate technologies from more recent conventionally-armed cruise missiles. Those systems are used here as a benchmark for the LRSO, and Congressional staff indicate the assessments below are largely correct.
Stealthy: The Advanced Cruise Missile was stealthy and harder to detect than the ALCM. DOD officials continually emphasize that the LRSO is needed to penetrate advanced air defenses, a capability that would be greatly enhanced by stealth.
Supersonic: The official “Request for Information” for the LRSO issued by the Air Force lists “engine options” that include supersonic capability. However, cruise missiles travelling faster than the speed of sound (supersonic) have less range and such high speed detracts from stealth, so this may not be a final requirement.
Extended Range: The official range for the ALCM (designated AGM-86B by the Air Force) is 1,500-plus miles. The range for the ACM (designated AGM-129A by the Air Force) was “more than 2,000 miles.”
Re-targetable: Once an ALCM is released from the B-52 bomber that carries it, it operates autonomously, relying on internal inertial navigation with terrain contour-matching updates to provide guidance. However, original plans for the Air Force’s most advanced long-range conventional cruise missile, the JASSM-ER, included a data link that would allow in-flight communication, meaning it could be re-targeted while in flying on its own. In the end it was not included because of budget cuts, but such a data link could be included in the LRSO.
Improved Variable Yield: The ALCM is believed to have a selectable yield of 5 KTs or 150 KTs. The lower yield is presumably for the boosted primary alone, and the larger yield for the two-stage weapon. The life-extension program for the W80 warhead, which will be carried by the LRSO missile, is expected to provide closer to a “dial-a-yield” option that would allow a number of yield options.
Multiple Delivery Platforms: The ALCM can only be carried by the B-52. The LRSO will be carried by the B-2, the B-52, and the new strategic bomber in development, the Long-Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B.
Increased Accuracy: The ALCM is reported to have an accuracy of 30+ meters. Modern conventional cruise missiles, which include GPS systems on board, are far more accurate. Although it is not clear if the LRSO will use GPS, a data link could also potentially help with guidance.
As I note in the Defense News piece, given that long list of enhanced capabilities, it not clear that the LRSO complies with the Obama administration’s policy that it will not develop new nuclear weapons and that warhead life extension programs like the one that is part of the LRSO program “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities,” as declared in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.
In sum, based on these capabilities, the LRSO will clearly be a significantly more capable system than the existing ALCM. Indeed, one former Hill staffer briefed on the program stated that the LRSO will be “a hundred times” more capable than the ALCM.
And that is exactly why the United States would be better off if the Obama administration cancelled the program.
Featured photo: The Advanced Cruise Missile, retired in 2007, was stealthy and had a longer range than the currently deployed Air-Launched Cruise Missile. (U.S. Air Force Photo)]]>