Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

Warhead upgrade costs could spiral, report warns

20 September 2016
Auditors urge further steps to tighten management controls over an $8 billion program to extend the life of a 1960s-era bomb.

Suboptimal management controls could inflate the cost of upgrading the nation’s primary nuclear bomb beyond the official $8.1 billion price tag, US Department of Energy auditors caution. The B-61 bomb life extension program (LEP), which is to add 20 years and new capabilities to the half-century-old weapon system, is jointly led by Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The first revamped bomb, known as the B-61-12, is scheduled for delivery to the US Air Force in 2020.

“We believe without further improvement to its project management tools, it will be difficult for the program to proactively manage the costs, schedule, and risks of the B61-12 LEP to ensure it can deliver the [first revamped bomb] within cost and meet its critical national security schedule,” says acting DOE inspector general Rickey Hass in a report published in August. “In addition, there is uncertainty whether the original cost estimate for the B61-12 LEP contains sufficient management reserve to allow the program to respond to the numerous risks identified in the program.”

The B-61-12 will consolidate the existing four versions of the B-61, which contains the oldest components in the nation’s nuclear arsenal. A new guided tail kit to be supplied by the air force at a reported cost of $1 billion will significantly improve the weapon’s accuracy. The B-61’s explosive yield ranges from a low of 0.3 kilotons to a high of 170 kilotons, according to published sources. The greater accuracy of the B-61-12 will ensure that yields at the smaller end of that range can destroy underground enemy bunkers while producing less collateral damage and fallout.

Four B-61s on a bomb rack.
Four B-61s on a bomb rack.

The report says LEP managers had not set aside sufficient reserve funds to cover unforeseen problems. Moreover, it notes that the master program schedule didn’t always align with the schedules of the labs and the manufacturing sites: “This coordination is especially important, as there are many instances where work at one site cannot begin until another site completes prerequisite work.”

Project management tools instituted by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration are supposed to identify potential problems early on, and the NNSA told auditors that the LEP has so far met every milestone since it was authorized in 2012. But Hass says that half of the 48 actions that managers identified as needing to be taken by Los Alamos and Sandia to mitigate program risks were behind schedule. In addition, Sandia officials were unable to document that redesigns of multiple components resolved quality assurance concerns.

Officials of the NNSA complained that the inspector general’s findings were outdated because a year had elapsed since the audit concluded. Corrective actions had been completed or were under way to address the concerns identified, the NNSA said. Sandia officials said the lab made changes to its review process in response to the auditors’ findings.

Although the numbers are classified, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ authoritative Nuclear Notebook estimated in March that there are 280 deployed B-61s, 180 of which are located in Europe. Another 320 are in storage. Energy secretary Ernest Moniz has said that completion of the B-61 LEP in 2025 will allow the B-83, the last megaton-class warhead in the stockpile, to be retired. Due to its smaller destructive footprint, some critics contend that the modified B-61 will lower the threshold to using nuclear weapons in a conflict.

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal