Nuclear Weapons: NNSA Plans to Modernize Critical Depleted Uranium Capabilities and Improve Program Management

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is taking steps to establish a new supply of high-purity depleted uranium (DU) to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile. DU for fabrication of weapons components must be in high-purity metal form. Producing DU metal generally involves first converting a byproduct of uranium enrichment, known as “tails,” into a salt “feedstock,” which is then converted into metal. (See figure.) To reestablish a supply of feedstock, NNSA plans to install conversion equipment in an existing facility at DOE’s Portsmouth site in Ohio. DOE initially estimated costs of $12 million to $18 million to design and install the equipment, with operations beginning in fiscal year 2022. However, in March 2020, NNSA requested an increase in conversion capacity, and an updated proposal in July 2020 estimated costs of $38 million to $48 million and a slight delay to the start of operations. NNSA plans to convert the feedstock into DU metal using a commercial vendor at a cost of about $27 million annually.

Conversion of a Byproduct of Uranium Enrichment into Metal

NNSA is also taking steps to reestablish and modernize DU component manufacturing capabilities, but it risks delays that could affect the timelines of nuclear stockpile modernization programs, according to officials. NNSA has reestablished processes for manufacturing some DU components but not for components made with a DU-niobium alloy, a material for which NNSA has no alternative. Thus, restarting the alloying process—a complicated, resource-intensive process that has not been done in over a decade—is NNSA’s top priority for DU and presents a very high risk to timely supply of components for certain nuclear stockpile modernization programs, according to NNSA documents and officials. NNSA is also developing more efficient manufacturing technologies, in part because the current alloyed component process wastes a very high percentage of the materials and NNSA cannot recycle the waste. For its DU activities, NNSA has requested an increase in funding from about $61 million in fiscal year 2020 to about $131 million in fiscal year 2021.

Until recently, NNSA had not managed DU activities as a coherent program in a manner fully consistent with NNSA program management policies. Since October 2019, however, NNSA has taken actions to improve program management. For example, NNSA has consolidated management and funding sources for DU activities under a new office and DU Modernization program with the goal of better coordinating across the nuclear security enterprise. Further, NNSA appointed two dedicated Federal Program Managers to gather and organize information for required program management and planning documents.

Why GAO Did This Study

High-purity DU is an important strategic material for ongoing and planned modernizations of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. However, according to NNSA estimates, NNSA has a very limited supply of DU feedstock, and its current supply of DU metal will be exhausted in the late 2020s. NNSA also does not have the full range of capabilities needed to manufacture DU into weapon components needed for modernizing the stockpile. GAO has previously reported that NNSA has experienced challenges in restarting some technical manufacturing processes.

A Senate committee report accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 included a provision for GAO to examine NNSA’s management of DU for nuclear stockpile modernization. GAO’s report examines (1) the status of NNSA’s efforts to obtain the necessary quantities of DU to meet stockpile modernization requirements; (2) the status of NNSA efforts to develop DU component manufacturing capabilities to meet stockpile modernization requirements; and (3) the extent to which NNSA is managing DU activities as a program, consistent with agency policy.

GAO reviewed relevant agency documents; interviewed NNSA officials and contractor representatives; and conducted site visits at headquarters and at research, development, and production locations.

For more information, contact Allison Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or bawdena@gao.gov.

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    The Justice Department announced today that it has reached a settlement to resolve a claim that Night and Day Dental Inc. discriminated against a woman with HIV in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 
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  • Guyana National Day
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • DAG Monaco Delivers Remarks at Press Conference on Darkside Attack on Colonial Pipeline
    In Crime News
    Today, the Department of Justice is announcing a significant development in the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline.
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  • Secretary Blinken’s Meeting with French Foreign Minister Le Drian
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Spain National Day
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Michael R. Pompeo, [Read More…]
  • Southwest Border Security: Actions Are Needed to Address the Cost and Readiness Implications of Continued DOD Support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection
    In U.S GAO News
    Since April 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has submitted 33 requests for assistance (RFA) to the Department of Defense (DOD) for support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) mission at the southwest border. DOD established six criteria for evaluating RFAs, which it documents in decision packages. When reviewing four selected decision packages, GAO found that DOD fully evaluated four of these six criteria. GAO found that DOD developed rough cost estimates that were not reliable. In addition, DOD did not fully evaluate the effect on military readiness of providing support at the time the Secretary of Defense considered DHS's requests. Without reliable cost estimates and a timely readiness analysis, DOD is limited in its ability to evaluate the effect of supporting DHS on its budget and readiness rebuilding efforts. DOD's Detection and Monitoring Support Mission DOD has not provided Congress with timely information on the full costs it has incurred since 2018 in supporting DHS. Specifically, during this review, DOD did not submit its statutory report to Congress for fiscal year 2019, which was due March 31, 2020. Additionally, GAO found that DOD's internal tracking of obligations excludes potentially significant costs of border support activities, such as installation support costs and the cost of benefits retroactively provided to members of the National Guard. By providing more timely and complete information to Congress, DOD would enhance Congress's ability to conduct oversight and make funding decisions for DOD and DHS. DOD and DHS employed several key interagency collaboration practices for DOD's support on the southwest border, but they have not agreed on a common outcome for DOD's support in fiscal year 2021 and beyond. DHS anticipates needing at least the current amount of DOD support for the next 3 to 5 years, possibly more, and officials stated that the desired outcome is for DOD to provide the capabilities requested in the RFAs. This differs from DOD's desired outcome, which is to provide temporary assistance until DHS can independently execute its border security mission. Defining and articulating a common outcome for DOD's support could enable DOD to more effectively plan for the resources it will need to support DHS and enable DHS to plan to manage its border security mission more effectively with its own assets. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in February 2021. Information on force protection that DOD deemed sensitive has been omitted. For decades, the U.S. southwest border has been vulnerable to cross-border illegal activity such as illegal entries, smuggling of drugs and contraband, and terrorist activities. Since 2002, DOD has supported DHS's mission to secure the nation's borders and episodically supported its efforts to manage surges in foreign nationals without valid travel documents who are seeking entry—most recently since April 2018, when the President directed the Secretary of Defense to support DHS in securing the southwest border. GAO was asked to examine this support. This report assesses the extent to which (1) DOD has evaluated DHS's RFAs, (2) DOD has reported to Congress the full costs of its support, and (3) DOD and DHS have collaborated on border security operations. GAO reviewed RFAs that DHS submitted to DOD between April 2018 and March 2020 and a non-generalizable sample of decision packages that DOD prepared in response, and conducted four site visits to border locations where military personnel were stationed. GAO makes seven recommendations, five to DOD to improve its analysis and reporting of cost and unit-level readiness impacts of supporting southwest border operations and one each to DOD and DHS to define a common outcome for DOD's future support. DOD agreed with one recommendation and disagreed with five. GAO continues to believe the recommendations are warranted as discussed in the report. DHS agreed with the recommendation to it. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Secretary Pompeo’s Meeting with Japanese National Security Secretariat Secretary General Shigeru Kitamura
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Developer Agrees to Mitigate Impacts to Streams and Wetlands
    In Crime News
    A developer and his companies have agreed to effectuate $900,000 in compensatory mitigation, preserve undisturbed riparian areas, conduct erosion-control work on streams, and be subject to a prohibitory injunction to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) on property north of Houston, Texas, the Justice Department announced today.
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