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Nation's bloated nuclear spending under scrutiny

| Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, 8:27 p.m.

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — At Los Alamos National Laboratory, a seven-year, $213 million upgrade to the security system that protects the lab's most sensitive nuclear bomb-making facilities doesn't work.

Those same facilities, which sit atop a fault line, remain susceptible to collapse and dangerous radiation releases, despite millions more spent on improvement plans.

In Tennessee, the price tag for a new uranium processing facility has grown nearly sevenfold in eight years to upward of $6 billion because of problems that include a redesign to raise the roof.

And the estimated cost of an ongoing effort to refurbish 400 of the country's B61 bombs has grown from $1.5 billion to $10 billion.

Virtually every major project under the National Nuclear Security Administration's oversight is behind schedule and over budget — the result, watchdogs and government auditors say, of years of lax accountability and nearly automatic annual budget increases for the agency responsible for maintaining the nation's nuclear stockpile.

The NNSA has racked up $16 billion in cost overruns on 10 major projects that are a combined 38 years behind schedule, the Government Accountability Office reports. Other projects have been canceled or suspended, despite hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, because they grew too bloated.

Advocates say spending increases are necessary to keep the nation's nuclear arsenal operating and safe, and to continue cutting-edge research at the nation's nuclear labs. But critics say the nuclear program — run largely by private contractors and overseen by the NNSA, an arm of the Energy Department — has turned into a massive jobs program with duplicative functions.

“The post-Cold War nuclear warhead complex has become a gigantic self-licking ice cream cone for contractors,” said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security financial and contracting oversight subcommittee, said a key problem is the Energy Department's reliance on private contractors to carry out its mission.

The DOE has fewer than 16,000 employees and more than 92,000 contractors.

“Unfortunately for the taxpayer ... cost overruns, scheduled delays and technical failures are the rule, not the exception,” said McCaskill, D-Mo. “We need to find a better way to do this because we can't just afford the status quo anymore.”

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