GAO says NNSA must address plutonium research needs

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said on Wednesday that the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Energy must continue to assess how plutonium research, capability needs and stockpile efforts have changed.

The GAO said the NNSA, a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy, must develop a plan for near- and longer-term plutonium needs. The NNSA agreed with the recommendation.

In April 2012, NNSA's Los Alamos National Laboratory conducted a study to identify the general options for meeting the agency's plutonium research needs during a several-year gap created by deferring the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement nuclear facility. In February 2012, the NNSA deferred CMRR nuclear facility construction for at least five years, creating a potential plutonium research gap between 2019 and the late 2020s.

The study found that the level of plutonium research needed to support the nuclear weapons life extension programs would be affected by several uncertainties, including the planned schedule of the programs, the number of pits needed and the number of pits that need to be manufactured rather than re-used.

The LANL study presented three options for meeting the NNSA's plutonium research needs, but as of July, officials had not yet selected an option for research needs from 2019 through the late 2020s.

The Senate Armed Services Committee directed the GAO to review the LANL study to examine the options identified in the study and the potential impacts of the options on NNSA's plutonium research for the nuclear weapons stockpile and other plutonium research missions.

The status of the GAO's recommendation to develop a plan remains open and will be updated when the NNSA takes action in response to the recommendation.

The NNSA manages the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile and conducts research to extend the life of existing weapons. Nuclear weapons require plutonium to create a nuclear explosion.