an analysis
by Dr. Robert Civiak
for Tri-Valley CAREs


The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-independent agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), manages the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile under a program called the Stockpile Stewardship Program. The annual budget request for this program is contained in an account titled Nuclear Weapons Activities.

On February 4, 2002, the Bush administration submitted its budget request for fiscal year 2003, which begins October 1, 2002. The budget requests $5.87 billion for Nuclear Weapons Activities. That is an increase of $306 million, or 5.5 percent over the 2002 appropriation. The budget request is notable not so much for the size of this year's increase, but for its continuation of a massive buildup in the Stockpile Stewardship Program that has been underway for several years.

In addition, the NNSA's budget justification documents reveal new details about the Administration's activities and plans to modify and upgrade every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal and to design and produce new types of nuclear weapons.

The Bush Administration's 2003 request for Nuclear Weapons Activities continues a massive upsurge in funding that has been underway since 1995. As shown in Figure 1, below, funding for Nuclear Weapons Activities declined for several years following the end of the Cold War, but has been increasing rapidly since 1995.

The 2003 request is more than twice what DOE spent in 1995 for Nuclear Weapons Activities ($2.87 billion). Even after accounting for inflation, the 2003 request is still 80 percent more than 1995 spending and nearly one and one-half times the average annual spending for research, development, and testing of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War (1948-1991).

Perhaps more significant than the continuing large spending increases for nuclear weapons, are the insights into U.S. nuclear weapons policies that are revealed in this year's budget request. In November 2001, President Bush announced that the United States would reduce the number of operationally deployed nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200. Nevertheless, the 2003 budget request for Nuclear Weapons Activities gives no indication that the NNSA is planning to support a smaller nuclear weapons stockpile. Instead, the budget provides for major upgrades to every nuclear weapon design in the current stockpile and requests funds to design the first completely new U.S. nuclear weapon for the stockpile in more than fifteen years. The budget also places the United States on a track that may lead to a resumption of full-scale nuclear weapons testing.


This year's budget continues the recent trend of increases in nearly all aspects of the Stockpile Stewardship Program (see Table 1 below). The 2003 request for some program elements is less than the comparable 2002 appropriation, but in all cases, the 2003 request significantly exceeds 2001 funding.


(Dollars in millions)

Program Element FY 2001 Appropriation FY 2002 Appropriation FY 2003 Request 2003 vs 2001 2003 vs 2002
Directed Stockpile Work 934 1,044 1,234 +32% +18%
Campaigns 2,018 2,100 2,068 +2% -2%
Readiness in Technical Base and Facilities 1,495 1,535 1,688 +13% +10%
Facilities and Infrastructure Recapitalization 9 197 242 +2700% +23%
Secure Transportation 127 161 155 +23% -4%
Safeguards and Security 411 555 510 +24% -8%
Adjustments -42 -29 -29 na na
Weapons Activities Total 4,952 5,563 5,869 +18.5% +5.5%


The budget requests an increase of $190 million (18 percent) for Directed Stockpile Work (DSW). The DSW program element funds activities that directly support the maintenance and enhancement of nuclear weapons in the enduring stockpile and the development of new weapons systems. The large increase is to begin production engineering for upgrades to four of the eight nuclear weapons designs (the W76 and W80 warheads and the B61-7 and B61-11 bombs) in the U.S. arsenal. The request would also fund continuing production and installation of new and modified components for a fifth design, the W87 warhead. In addition, NNSA is requesting increases in this budget category to expand hydrodynamic testing on the W78 and W80 warheads and to begin designing a new nuclear weapon, which it calls the "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator" (see below).

The budget requests slightly less funding (-1.5 percent) for Campaigns in 2003 than in 2002, but the request is above the 2001 spending level. This program element is a collection of 17 separately managed subprograms, which each focus on a specific issue the NNSA wishes to address to improve its understanding of nuclear weapons physics and engineering or to expand its capabilities for research, development, production, and testing of nuclear weapons. Less funding is needed in 2003 than in 2002, because some large construction projects, including the National Ignition Facility (NIF), have progressed beyond the peak in their funding requirement. NNSA has also deferred further development of the Advanced Hydrodynamics Facility and reduced its funding request for associated experiments in the Advanced Radiography Campaign.

The budget requests an increase of $153 million (10 percent) for Readiness in Technical Base and Facilities. This program element funds the base operating cost of the laboratories and production sites in the NNSA weapons complex. Together with the Facilities and Infrastructure Recapitalization program element, which is a new initiative to fund major improvements to weapons complex facilities, they account for nearly one-third of the total request for nuclear weapons activities. The combined request for these facility operating and maintenance programs is $426 million (28 percent) above comparable 2001 spending.

The 2003 budget requests for Secure Transportation of nuclear weapons and components and for Safeguards and Security within the nuclear weapons complex are both less than the corresponding 2002 appropriations. However, both of those program elements received large "supplemental" funding increases in 2002 to improve security in response to the September 11 attacks. NNSA will not be able to spend all of the supplemental funds it received in 2002 and the remaining funds will be available for spending in 2003. Even without the extra funds that will remain from 2002, the combined 2003 request for those two program elements would still provide an increase of 24 % above the 2001 spending levels.


In the past, the DOE/NNSA's budget request provided almost no information on the cost of developing, producing, maintaining, or enhancing specific weapon systems. In the FY 2002 Energy and Water Conference Report (H. Rept. 107-258), Congress directed the NNSA to provide detailed information by weapon system in its budget justification for fiscal year 2003. Nevertheless, the budget contains only minimal information on the cost of specific weapon systems. All it contains is a single table that attributes $745 million of the $1.2 billion request for Directed Stockpile Work to specific weapons systems.

The budget designates the rest of its request for Directed Stockpile Work as "Multiple System" and refers the rest of its $5.9 billion request for nuclear weapons activities as "capability requirements for the weapons complex." By this strange method of accounting, NNSA proposes to spend $745 million on its fundamental mission to maintain nuclear weapons in the current stockpile and $5.1 billion on other things. Furthermore, the budget identifies how much of that $745 million the NNSA plans to spend on major initiatives to modify and upgrade (as opposed to just maintain) existing weapon systems. Those upgrade programs, which are euphemistically referred to as "Life Extension Programs," are summarized in Table 2.


Weapon System 2003 Request for Life Extension
B61 $64 million
W76 $100 million
W80 $122 million
W87 $66 million

Providing this information is a significant improvement from past practice, but is woefully inadequate for any debate on the cost and benefits of upgrading these weapon systems. There is no information on the multiyear cost of the Life Extension Programs or any justification for the upgrades. By this practice, multibillion dollar procurement programs for major improvements to weapons systems are hidden as ongoing maintenance activities.


Enhancing Nuclear Warhead Capabilities - In 1993, the President and the Congress established the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) with the goal of maintaining high confidence in the stockpile absent full scale underground nuclear testing. The NNSA's 2003 budget documents revise that goal to, "Maintain and ENHANCE [emphasis added] the safety, security, and reliability of the Nation's nuclear weapons stockpile to counter the threats of the 21st Century."

The idea of enhancing the stockpile was intentionally omitted as a goal in 1993 for two reasons. First, it was generally agreed that the existing stockpile was extremely safe and reliable and, thus, no changes were needed. Second, it was generally agreed that if major changes were made to nuclear weapons, without full scale underground nuclear testing, there would be a significant risk that the modified weapons would be less safe and reliable than the well-tested versions they replaced. Neither of those reasons is any less true today.

Adding enhancement of the stockpile as an NNSA goal is the type of major policy change that would normally merit significant debate. Unfortunately however, the move merely recognizes what DOE and NNSA have been doing for some time. Despite the absence of a mandate to improve nuclear weapons, DOE and NNSA have been doing so under the guise of "refurbishing" nuclear weapons and conducting "life extension programs." The change from maintaining the stockpile to enhancing it occurred gradually over several years and was not accompanied by a meaningful debate.

Today, NNSA is rebuilding nuclear weapons to improve their accuracy, altering systems for storing and injecting tritium gas into exploding nuclear weapon primaries, revising systems to vary warhead yields, revamping security and use control systems, altering the ability of warheads to withstand hostile environments, installing new neutron generators that modify how the nuclear explosion is initiated, adjusting the height at which nuclear blasts occur, and adding capabilities for warheads to penetrate beneath the surface of the earth before exploding.

The 2003 budget includes performance measures for changes it proposes to every single warhead in the U.S. stockpile. NNSA still couches the upgrades in the euphemistic terminology of refurbishments and life extension, but the 2003 budget finally acknowledges the previous unstated goal of enhancing nuclear weapons.

While we prefer this truth in advertising, we believe that attempting to enhance the nuclear weapons stockpile is detrimental to U.S. national security. Making major changes to nuclear weapons, without full scale underground testing, risks reducing their safety and reliability compared to the well-tested, safe, and reliable weapons in the current stockpile. Under the new policy, NNSA may soon have to return to full-scale nuclear testing to be sure that its modified nuclear weapons are safe and effective. A U.S. return to testing would signal to other nations that they too can expand efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Designing a New Nuclear Weapon - The 2003 budget proposes to initiate a Design Definition and Cost Study (Development Phase 6.2A) for a new "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator" weapon. Initiating a Phase 6.2A design requires a formal agreement with the Department of Defense. It is essentially a commitment to develop the new weapon design to a point at which it can be considered for addition to the stockpile. It was during this phase of development, previously called Phase 2A, that DOE used to begin full-scale underground nuclear tests for a new design.

It is not clear whether NNSA plans to design the new weapon from scratch or to modify an existing warhead for the new role. NNSA has already modified the B61 warhead for an earth penetrating role to an extent that many would consider that modification to be a new warhead. Nevertheless, the new Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator weapon could be the first new nuclear weapon designed from scratch to enter the stockpile in the post-nuclear testing environment. It is also possible that the NNSA would want to abandon the testing moratorium to certify the new weapon.

The budget does not provide any specific funding information on the design program. Its funding is included within the request of $46 million for Supporting Research and Development under the Directed Stockpile Work program element. For comparison, NNSA plans to spend $33 million for Supporting Research and Development (for other activities) in 2002.

No Reduction in Nuclear Weapons - In November 2001, President Bush announced that the United States would reduce the number of OPERATIONALLY DEPLOYED [emphasis added] nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200. NNSA's 2003 budget gives no indication that it plans to support a smaller nuclear weapons stockpile in response to that announcement. On the contrary, at least three aspects of the 2003 budget indicate that NNSA expects to continue support for all the nuclear weapons in the current stockpile.

First, the budget requests only $24 million for dismantlement of nuclear weapons; a decrease of $2.0 million (7 percent) from 2002 funding. No funding is provided to study dismantlement issues relating to any of the nuclear weapon designs in the current stockpile.

Second, the budget requests $126 million to begin replenishing supplies of tritium gas for nuclear weapons in 2006. That is an increase of $3.6 million (3 percent) compared to 2002. The United States has sufficient tritium to maintain as many as 10,000 nuclear weapons for more than a decade. If the size of the stockpile were reduced to as little as 5,000 weapons, the tritium from retired warheads could be recycled to the remaining weapons, which would add about 12 more years to the tritium supply. NNSA's strategy for tritium production appears to indicate a continuing plan to support a stockpile of about 10,000 nuclear weapons.

Third, the budget requests $190 million for manufacturing and certification of a new plutonium pit for the W88 warhead. The budget provides for adding as many as 10 new W88 warheads to the stockpile per year beginning as early as 2007. The W88 is one of two types of warheads on U.S. submarine launched missiles. There are now nearly 400 W88 warheads in the stockpile and more than 3,000 W76 warheads, which is the other warhead on U.S. submarine launched missiles. Both are modern warheads that are expected to remain safe and reliable for the foreseeable future. NNSA says that it needs a capability to produce new W88 warheads, because it plans to remove one from the stockpile every other year for destructive testing. There seems to be little reason, however, to produce any new W88 warheads, much less 10 per year, if the U.S. plans to deploy only 1,700-2,200 nuclear weapons in total.

Moving Toward a Return to Full-Scale Nuclear Testing - The NNSA budget moves toward a return to full-scale testing of nuclear weapons, which have been suspended since the Administration of George Bush Sr. NNSA currently maintains the capability to return to nuclear testing within 24 to 36 months. However, at the President's direction, NNSA and DoD are conducting a study to reexamine "the optimum test readiness time." Pending the results of that study, the budget requests $15 million to reduce the time needed to conduct a nuclear test. Any move to shorten the test readiness time would be a dangerous sign, especially when combined with activities such as the design of a new Earth penetrating nuclear weapon, a rush to certify newly produced plutonium pits for the W88, and plans to modify every warhead in the stockpile, any of which may provide rationalization for a return to full-scale testing.


Good News - The budget requests only $2 million to continue planning activities for a new pit production facility. NNSA proposes to postpone the start of conceptual design activities for that facility, which were scheduled to begin in early FY 2002. Additionally, the budget provides no funding to continue design work on a linear accelerator for the production of tritium.

Bad News - The budget requests $122 million to refurbish the W80 warhead for the air-launched cruise missile, despite language in the FY 2002 Energy and Water Conference Report expressing concern with extending the life of the W80 and noting that DoD has not budgeted funds to extend the life of the missile. Too, the budget requests $725 million for the Advanced Simulation and Computing Campaign, an increase of $7 million (1 percent) and supports the commitment to a 100 teraOPS (100 trillion operations per second) capability by 2005.

NIF's 2003 Funding at a Glance - The NNSA budget does not separately identify all of the funding for NIF. NIF-related activities are conducted within at least two Campaigns and in some cases are merged with other activities. The following categories include most (but not necessarily all) of the funds for NIF.

High Energy Density Physics Campaign
Ignition $44 million
Experimental Support Technologies $34 million
NIF Demonstration Program $76 million
NIF Other Project Costs $1 million
NIF Construction $214 million
Secondary Certification Campaign
Radiation Flow $16 million
Secondary Performance $12 million
TOTAL $397 million

The budget notes reductions for NIF diagnostics and cryogenics and for the NIF target physics experimental program. The description for the Secondary Certification Campaign states, "the FY 2003 budget directs resources toward selected [non-NIF] activities, such as case dynamics, important for near term stockpile deliverables. Consistent with NNSA priorities, this budget will result in delays of the high-energy-density-physics experimental program on major facilities such as NIF." This appears to say that non-NIF activities related to maintaining the stockpile are a higher priority than the NIF experimental program, thus confirming critics' claims that NIF has little to do with actual maintenance of the nuclear arsenal (and more to do with advancing nuclear weapons science).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Robert Civiak has been doing policy analysis for more than 20 years. After receiving a Ph.D. in physics, Bob served as head of the Science Policy Division at the Congressional Research Service. He then moved to the White House Office of Management and Budget, where he served for more than a decade as the Budget Examiner for the DOE nuclear weapons program.

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