Originally created 10/03/00

Feds cite backlog in SRS weapons tests



Among numerous problems plaguing the nation's nuclear-weapons stockpile is a backlog of tests to be performed at Savannah River Site, according to federal auditors.

The federal nuclear-weapons site has a three- to five-year backlog of tritium reservoirs that must be tested, according to a report issued last week by the U.S. Department of Energy's inspector general. The inspector general serves as an internal watchdog for the cabinet agency.

The report criticized the Energy Department's Stockpile Stewardship Program, which maintains the nation's nuclear weapons and aims to ensure their operability without test detonations. The SRS backlog was one of several problems found, auditors reported.

"Because the nuclear-weapons production infrastructure has not been adequately maintained, current and future goals of the Stockpile Stewardship Program are at risk," Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman wrote in a memo to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

Tritium reservoirs are weapons components that contain the radioactive gas used to boost the power of atomic blasts. SRS is responsible for testing the reservoirs to ensure they will operate if the weapons are used, said Dennis Hayes, deputy manager for defense programs for Westinghouse Savannah River Co.

Westinghouse operates SRS under contract for the Energy Department.

The SRS delays occurred after the Energy Department closed its Mound plant, near Miamisburg, Ohio, in 1993, Mr. Hayes said. SRS assumed some testing duties from the shuttered plant, he said.

At the time, Energy Department officials knew the shutdown would create a backlog, because no facilities existed at SRS to perform the tests, Mr. Hayes said. But delays and increased workloads have caused the backlog to linger for much longer than anticipated, he said.

"We did not have full capability to do all the testing on all the components in the stockpile until 1998," Mr. Hayes said. "In addition to that, during that time frame, there were additional requirements above what were normally scheduled that increased the size of the backlog."

To cope with the shortfall, the site has requested an additional $3 million in annual funding for fiscal year 2001 and beyond, Mr. Hayes said. The money would be used to hire and train additional staff, he said.

If the request is granted, the site could eliminate the backlog by 2005, Mr. Hayes said. Without the money, the time frame is less certain.

"At this point, we couldn't say," Mr. Hayes said when asked how long it would take to eliminate the backlog at current site staffing levels.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.