In a cautionary tale of throwing away more than a health insurance liability when you lay off older workers, this disconcerting little note from our nation's nuclear weapons industry.
In 2007, as the government began overhauling the nation's stockpile of W76 warheads—the variety often carried by Ohio-class submarines—officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration realized they couldn't produce an essential material known as "Fogbank." What purpose this substance actually serves is classified, but outside experts have suggested that it's a sort of exploding foam that sits between the fission and fusion portions of hydrogen bombs. The Government Accountability Office reported in March that NNSA's effort to recover its Fogbank-making ability had resulted in a yearlong, $69 million delay in the refurbishment project. And a government official with knowledge of the situation tells Mother Jones that further Fogbank-related delays are imminent.
The US government's Fogbank snafu has stunned nuclear policy experts. "What the story ought to tell people is that the institutions that we've built to oversee development and maintenance of our nuclear weapons are incompetent," says Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the nuclear strategy and nonproliferation initiative at the New America Foundation, who has written about the episode.
So how did America's three nuclear weapons design laboratories and four nuclear weapons manufacturing plants—the institutions collectively known as the nuclear weapons complex—simply forget how to make a crucial component of one of the military's most important warheads? "It seems like it was a case of ten-year-itis," says Phil Coyle, a former assistant secretary of defense who worked in the nuclear weapons complex for 33 years. "Ten years go by and people forget things that they used to know how to do."
"You have to keep people who know how to do these things and when people get too old or they retire you have to train new people to take their place," adds Coyle, now a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank. But NNSA failed to do so, according to the GAO. The agency "kept few records of the process when [Fogbank] was made in the 1980s and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency" by the 2000s. [More]
But wait, there may be a saner approach buried in the new federal budget.
Anti-nuclear weapons advocates warmly welcomed President Barack Obama’s 2010 budget as it has eliminated funding for research and development of a new-generation nuclear warhead called the Reliable Replacement Warhead.
"Development work on the Reliable Replacement Warhead will cease, while continued work to improve the nuclear stockpile's safety, security, and reliability is enhanced with more expansive life extension programs," the budget document said. [More]
Maybe some knowledge should be forgotten.