Effort on Missile Upkeep Falters, Report Finds

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Effort on Missile Upkeep Falters, Report Finds By JAMES GLANZ

A new report by the General Accounting Office says a program to refurbish and extend the life of the nation's aging nuclear warheads is behind its original schedule, 70 percent over budget and plagued by management difficulties.

Officials at the Energy Department, which runs the program, say that the problems have now largely been solved, but the main author of the report maintains that the disarray persists, threatening a planned expansion of the program.

The problems have appeared with efforts to assess and improve warheads on MX or Peacekeeper missiles, according to the report by the accounting office, the investigative arm of Congress. The MX warheads are the first to enter the program, but all of the weapons that will remain in the arsenal must eventually undergo the process, called life extension.

The effort is part of the stockpile stewardship program that supervises the condition of the nation's nuclear weapons, which were not originally expected to remain in use for long without being replaced. No new designs have entered the arsenal since the United States declared a moratorium on explosive nuclear testing in 1992.

The bureau with responsibility for stockpile stewardship, the Office of Defense Programs at the Energy Department is a "dysfunctional organization with unclear lines of authority that lead to a lack of accountability," leading to design and production problems, cost overruns and inadequate oversight in the life-extension program for the MX warhead, called the W87, the report said.

Next for the program are nuclear warheads carried on submarine- launched Trident missiles and on air- launched cruise missiles.

"Our concern is, `Are you going to manage those better than you managed the last one?' " said James Nol, an assistant director of the accounting office and the principal author of the report. "And if you don't, the stakes are obviously higher a lot greater portion of the stockpile and a lot more money involved."

Started in 1994 at an estimated cost of $440 million, the program fell two years behind schedule and is now expected to cost $750 million.

Last year, the National Nuclear Security Administration began operation within the Energy Department, in hopes of streamlining control of nuclear weapons programs and increasing accountability. The Office of Defense Programs now falls within the agency.

Madelyn Creedon, who has headed defense programs office since July, conceded that the program had suffered delays, but she strongly disagreed with criticisms of her office, saying: "When I came in July I did not see that. I did not see a dysfunctional office."

In addition, Ms. Creedon said, "we feel much better about this program now than we did six months ago and certainly better than when G.A.O. did the bulk of its work."

Dr. Billy Mullins, director of the Air Force's nuclear weapons and counterproliferation agency, also said that he believed the management of the program had improved in the past year and that many of the problems arose simply because several nuclear production plants involved in the refurbishment had been temporarily shut down, and starting them up again had been difficult.

Those plants include the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., dealing with classified work involving nuclear components.

"Any time you put a plant in standby and you're not actually exercising, like a muscle it atrophies," Dr. Mullins said. "It atrophied more than folks really thought it had."

He added that "given all the hiccups we had, we're pretty much on track."

In fact, the report, which took two years and was originally requested by the energy and water subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said that the W87 program, though delayed, was now keeping to a revised schedule and had begun swapping refurbished warheads onto the MX missiles.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 13, 2001

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