A February 2014 explosion at a dump for radioactive waste from US nuclear weapons programs remains unexplained.
Subcritical Nuclear Tests Raise New Dangers
(May 2, 2019) — On February 13 of this year, Livermore and Los Alamos Labs conducted a subcritical nuclear test in Nevada that breached the steel containment vessel that was supposed to contain it. One month later, on March 12, the decontamination of plutonium in the underground chamber was completed. Soon thereafter, the Trump budget request for the coming year was released. It includes no information about the subcritical release incident but is chock full of funding to conduct more frequent subcritical tests while enhancing the types of equipment that can be used in their detonation.
The accident involved cracks in the fasteners on the containment vessel. It illustrates one obvious danger with these experiments, radioactive contamination. The subcritical test program also creates less obvious risks to national and global security norms and treaties. These dangers are illuminated in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) budget request for nuclear weapons activities.
As Tri-Valley CAREs reviewed the NNSA request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, we noticed a growing budget item, “Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments,” along with a plan for an increased “cadence” of subcritical tests.
Subcritical tests are explosive experiments conducted in an underground chamber at the Nevada Nuclear Security Site, previously known as the Nevada Test Site where more than a thousand above and below ground nuclear tests were detonated before 1992, when the nuclear testing moratorium act was signed into law.
Subcritical tests use weapons grade plutonium, but the small amounts involved do not reach a self-sustaining “critical” fission chain reaction, or nuclear explosive yield. Tri-Valley CAREs and others have raised objections to subcritical experiments and their role in new weapons development. Further, while subcritical tests may not technically violate the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the US has signed but not ratified, the tests undermine the spirit of the treaty.
Subcritical tests along with the entire nuclear stockpile stewardship program enable the Trump Administration to ratchet up the pace and scope of developing new warheads alongside its plan to also expand production of plutonium bomb cores, called “pits,” for the new warheads. At least one new warhead, the W87-1, will require a pit that differs from previous designs.
Taken together, these activities that make changes to weapons create pressure to consider resumption of nuclear explosive (i.e., yield) testing in order to certify them. In the context of plans for new nuclear weapons, it is not surprising that the NNSA is enhancing its subcritical testing program. However, the program is dangerous and warrants more scrutiny.
Enhancing Subcritical Capability and Cadence
The ramp up in subcritical testing is called “Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments” (ESCE) and it includes developing new diagnostic tools for these tests and more. The NNSA FY20 budget request traces the evolution and projected growth of the ESCE program — and it is instructive.
NNSA first notes the justification that “the stockpile is inherently moving away from the Underground Test (UGT) database through aggregate influences of aging, modern manufacturing techniques, modern materials, and evolving design philosophies” (emphasis added; in plain language this means novel designs and new military capabilities).
Then the history is traced back to 2014 when both Los Alamos and Livermore labs, “jointly identified that a capability gap exists.” After further studies in 2016, NNSA claims that it was determined that, “Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments (ECSE) will close this gap.”
Further, NNSA notes in its new FY20 budget request that “Data from ECSE will help the certification of the W80-4 LEP and the W87-1 Modification Program,” (emphasis added) and that, “to support the program plan documented in the 2018 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP), NNSA places a high priority on developing ECSE.”
The W80-4 and W87-1 warheads are both being developed at Livermore Lab and the so-called “evolving design philosophies” are hugely in evidence here. Weapons designers and others in government have told us that Livermore’s design for the W80-4 is becoming increasingly more novel and complex (hence the need for additional types of diagnostic tests in ECSE along with more frequent subcritical tests). The W80-4 warhead will be mated to a new air-launched cruise missile being developed by the Pentagon.
The W87-1 is a new warhead design that will require a new-design pit among other new components. These features will push the warhead to “need” ESCE. An additional danger is that the warhead’s novelties may ultimately push beyond ESCE’s boundaries and lead to conducting nuclear explosive yield testing in order to certify the new design.
The W87-1 is intended to be mated to a new intercontinental ballistic, land-based, missile that has not yet been developed.
While NNSA and the weapons labs are pressing to enhance the subcritical testing program, and the Trump Administration is fully on board, congressional support for the ESCE program has so far been less enthusiastic. The FY 2018 budget request of approximately $51 million fell to $40.1 million in the final budget process. The FY 2019 request for the ESCE program was $117 million, but Congress only funded $50 million.
However, for FY2020, the request is suddenly a much larger at $145 million, with projections rising in later 170 million in FY21; $173 million in FY22; and nearly $187 million in FY23. This creates a total program cost approaching $1 billion by fiscal 2024. Real money here may equal real trouble.
In addition to the enhanced diagnostics, ECSE and other related operations will be supported by an additional construction and development program, which the budget calls the “U1a Complex Enhancements Project” (UCEP). UCEP will include “an increased operational cadence of subcritical weapons experiments using plutonium” to include 2-3 subcritical experiments per year. For reference, U1a is the name of the underground subcritical test complex. Two to three tests annually represents a major increase in the rate of subcritical nuclear testing.
Dangers of Enhanced Subcritical Program: New Nuclear Weapons, Testing
Tri Valley CAREs and others have raised concerns about subcritical tests along with many aspects of the expensive stockpile stewardship program that have enabled increasingly major modifications to nuclear weapons.
Conducting subcritical tests underground at Nevada Nuclear Security Site (i.e., the Nevada Test Site) poses additional specific risks to the global test moratorium and the CTBT. Subcritical tests are conducted at the same site and exact same shaft and underground facility where fully critical underground nuclear weapons tests were conducted. Subcritical tests play a role in maintaining the readiness of nuclear test site and the ability to prepare for resumption of nuclear explosive tests. We note that some proponents of nuclear weapons are pushing for explosive tests at low-yield, known as “supercritical” tests, which would violate the CTBT and the US observed nuclear testing moratorium.
Preparations for subcritical tests look very similar to preparations for what would be a fully critical test in violation of the CTBT and the test moratorium. Increasing the number of subcritical tests and spending large sums of money on a program called “Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments,” could easily be viewed as suspect and provocative by other countries.
Expanding and enhancing the subcritical test program in the context of the broader plans of the Trump Administration to develop new nuclear weapons, expand production capabilities, and walk away from arms control agreements, raises alarm bells. Tri- Valley CAREs will continue to counter the rising nuclear dangers, in part by asking questions, and urging Congress to raise a few of their own, about NNSA’s subcritical testing plans. We aim to “turn down the heat” by reducing subcritical tests that, along with other US activities, are firing up a new global arms race.
(Read more about subcritical test plans in the Fiscal Year 2020 Department of Energy Budget Request, Volume 1 (National Nuclear Security Administration), especially pages 74, 77, 138, 158 and 264.)
The recently released Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Weapons Activities Budget further advances plans outlined in the Trump Administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The overall NNSA Weapons Activities Budget Request is $12.4 billion an increase of 11.8% compared to the FY 2019 enacted spending. The FY2020 budget covers the time period from October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020.
Included here are summary highlights of key nuclear weapons development programs. Further budget information on other components of the NNSA Weapons Activities is forthcoming. For those who want to dive deeper into details, there are page references in parentheses to The Department of Energy FY2020 Congressional Budget Request, Volume 1 — a 651-page document covering the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
The W76-2 Warhead Modification — production complete end of 2019.
The price tag and work for FY 2020 drops to $10 million (from $65 million in FY 2019.) This is because all warhead modifications are to be completed by the end of2019 with only final program documentation and close out activities to be completed in FY 2020. This new low-yield warhead is planned to be deployed on Trident D5 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles. (See pp. 82, 85) Currently Tri-Valley CAREs is an active partner in the effort to push Congress to stop deployment of this low-yield weapon, see: “Last Chance to Stop Trump’s More Usable Nuclear Warhead is Now.”
W80-4 Life Extension Program (LEP) — moves to next phase of development (6.3) with an increased price tag.
This extends the life of the W80 warhead for use on the new nuclear air-launched cruise missile called the Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) cruise missile. In December 2018, the phase 6-2A Weapon Design and Cost Report was completed and laid out requirements for additional resources, which are included in the FY2020 budget. The W80-4 is now awaiting Nuclear Weapons Council authorization to proceed to Phase 6.3 in the second quarter of 2019.
The next milestone aim is to complete a Baseline Defense Review in 2021. This progress makes it more difficult to stop the warhead and LRSO plans, and it also ensures that the price tag will climb further for the warhead. This year the increase to the direct budget for the LEP is over 37%, as the price climbs to $899 million in FY 2020 over the FY 2019 spending of $655 million. The projected budget for the W80-4 LEP for 2021 is over $1 billion with the price continuing to climb thereafter (See pp. 82-83, 85, 92.) The “lead lab” for the W80-4 design is Livermore.
W87-1 -Modification Program /Warhead Replacement (Formerly Known As IW-1) budget more than doubles, and activities blooming.
This name changing warhead was called the IW-1, or Interoperable Warhead-1 in the FY 2019 budget, and is planned to replace the W78 warhead by 2030 and support fielding on the US Air Force (USAF) GBSD (Ground Based Strategic Deterrent) missile system planned to replace the current Minuteman III ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) force. This weapon replacement program has been a key driver for new plutonium pit (bomb core) production.
Even without the “interoperability” feature, modifications to this weapon are likely to lead to a pit design different than currently available pits. In FY 2019 the cost of the design work for the W87-1 was $53 million. The FY 2020 request is over $112 million — an increase of 111%. In FY 2021 an even larger increase is planned to $363 million and by FY2024 costs are planned to be $558 million (See pp. 82-83, 86-87, 93)
B61-12 LEP begins production and B83 remains too.
The expensive B61-12 “bunker buster” warhead is designed to consolidate and replace the B61-3, -4, -7, and -10 bombs. In June 2020 it is scheduled to enter a production phase (phase 6.5). There is a nominal drop in spending for the costly B61-12 from the FY 2019 $794 million to the FY 2020 request of $792.6 million (See pp. 82-83,85, 86, 97-98.)
Amid previous controversy over the expensive B61-12 some in Congress (including California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein) were persuaded to reluctantly curtail opposition to the B61-12 in part with a promise that the B61-12 LEP would lead to the retirement of the huge B83 megaton-yield nuclear bomb. The President’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) reversed this decision and now funds are being expended to sustain the B83 in the stockpile indefinitely.
For FY 2020 the cost to maintain the B83 “in accordance with the NPR” is $51.5 million, an increase of $16.5 million (or 47%) over FY 2019 enacted spending of $35 million. Tri-Valley CAREs continues to oppose the B61-12, and we will further urge Congress to insist on retirement of the B83. (See pp. 73, 76, 100).
W88-Alteration 370 begins production.
W88 Alt 370 production phase 6.6 begins in FY 2020 with Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) to support Initial Operational Capability (IOC) by FY 2020. The final weapon development report will be in FY 2021. The W88 Alteration is scheduled to be completed by FY 2024, consistent with Nuclear Posture Review requirements. The projected budget for FY 2020 is $304.2 million — $99 thousand less than FY 2019 enacted. Alteration is the term used for a weapons refurbishment that is less extensive than a LEP. (pp. 82-83, 85-86, 90-91)
Sowing Seeds — Strategic Missile Warhead (Formerly Known As “IW-2 and now also called “Next Navy Warhead”), and a Sea-Launched Cruise Missile Study.
Beginning in 2023 the plan is to conduct feasibility studies for the “Next” warhead as part the Stockpile Responsiveness Program that aims for alignment with current DOD nuclear modernization plans. The planned cost for the Next Strategic Missile Warhead is $57 million in FY 2023 and growing to $182.5 million in FY 2024. (See pp. 75-76, 83, 87, 140, 183-184)
Additionally, in keeping with the Nuclear Posture Review, there is a study considering Sea-Launched Cruise Missiles as part of the W-80 Stockpile Systems. While there is very little information about the planned study in the FY 2020 budget, the NPR called for consideration of a new nuclear-armed lower-yield Sea-Launched Cruise Missile. (See pp. 8, 84,100 and the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, p. 55)
Along with blooming weapons, the nuclear weapons enterprise grows too.
We note that as new weapons designs and capabilities sprout, pressures to resume explosive nuclear testing will also grow. Thus, Tri-Valley CAREs will be looking more carefully at plans to increase the number of subcritical experiments as well as the development of the “Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments” project — a program with costs rising from $50 million in FY 2019 to $145 million in FY 2020 and continuing to rise in Fiscal Years 2021-2024.
We are likewise scrutinizing other subcritical testing activities mentioned in the budget, as these tests in Nevada may be promoted by weaponeers making more radical changes to warhead designs. (See pp. 69, 74, 138, 158.)
These highlighted weapons programs together with growing new production facilities (such as a dramatic increase in plutonium pit production) show a burgeoning nuclear weapons development program. Tri-Valley CAREs will be further investigating additional key programs such as plutonium pit (bomb core) production and other infrastructure production activities.
Look for additional articles, fact sheets and action alerts as we continue to probe the FY 2020 budget request and related documents. Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.