Life Extension Programs

Life Extension Programs (LEPs) are programs that seek to make adjustments to current nuclear weapons to meet military and political objectives. The United States has ~ 7,700 nuclear weapons and, instead of dismantling aging nuclear warheads, Congress appropriates significant funding to LEPs to extend their operational use. As a current example, The B61 Gravity Bomb LEP seeks more than $10 billion (up from an original cost of $4 billion) to extend the life of these aging weapons. In addition, the LEP would add a new tail-kit that would modify the weapon into a guided bomb. The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA) is against these programs:

  1. The B61 LEP is of questionable military efficacy
  2. Updating/Upgrading aging nuclear weapons undercuts nonproliferation efforts (FAS Report, Slide 10)
  3. The B61’s mission may be voided by growing European opposition to nuclear weapons
  4. Cost overruns for the B61 LEP are emblematic of NNSA’s poor contract management and waste resources needed for other priorities: economic competitiveness, health-care, and education.

The B61 LEP is not the only LEP being considered. If we fail to stop this LEP, even more billions may be appropriated to other unnecessary and dangerous LEPs.

Key Resources:

ANA 2013 Factsheet on Nuclear Weapon Activities

Nuclear Watch New Mexico B61 Current Status Post  

FCNL B61 Factsheet

POGO B61 Letter to Secretary Hagel

FAS B61 Tailkit Brief

Defenders of LEPs argue that the objective of the programs are solely to extend the lifetime of nuclear weapons and do not add new military capabilities. Their contention is that these programs are relatively inexpensive compared to the rest of the Pentagon Budget and are necessary to maintain a reliable and verifiable deterrent. They also argue that if the United States does not update their aging nuclear weapons, it would send a message, to countries like North Korea, that the Untied States is not committed to its nuclear umbrella / protecting its allies.

Read more on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s defense of LEPs

Mixed Oxide Nuclear Fuel Facility

Mixed Oxide Plutonium Fuel (MOX) is composed of uranium dioxide and plutonium dioxide powders which are mixed inside of fuel pellets.  Because plutonium releases more radioactivity than uranium, this mixed fuel is more difficult to control inside of reactors and requires more safeguards than traditional uranium reactor fuel. In 2008 MOX fuel rods being tested by Duke Energy started warping and Duke withdrew from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s testing agreement.
The additional risks posed by MOX plutonium fuel, along with renewed global skepticism about nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, have resulted in the world-wide decline of the MOX industry. Japan has cancelled all of its orders for MOX plutonium fuel and the UK has recently closed its MOX plant in Sellafield due to a lack of customers. With no willing customers, the Department of Energy is pressuring the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to use MOX plutonium fuel. Some of the reactors that TVA is considering for MOX have the same Mark I exploding design that failed in Fukushima.

The US MOX program results from the 1998 Agreement on the Management and Disposition of Plutonium with Russia. This agreement designates 54 metric tons of surplus weapons grade plutonium for “immobilization” through irradiation as MOX fuel. Most of this plutonium comes from dismantled warheads. Although MOX is funded as anonproliferation program, it actually increases proliferation risks in two ways:

  • By transporting dangerous plutonium oxide powder from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where the US is currently processing its weapons plutonium to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina where MOX fuel assemblies will be manufactured.
  • Encouraging commercial markets for plutonium as reactor fuel.

Today, the Russians have changed their minds about what they will do with their MOX fuel and plan to use it in “breeder reactors” which actually generate more plutonium – hardly a nonproliferation advance. Adding salt to this wounded program is its cost; ballooning from an original estimate of $1.6 billion to $9.7 billion today.

Carnegie Endowment of Peace MOX Discussion

State Department Factsheet on the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement