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 nuclear security administration has racked up $16 billion in cost overruns on 10 major projects that are a combined 38 years behind schedule, the US Government Accountability Office reports.
Other projects have been cancelled 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 security administration, an arm of the US 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.
US Senator 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 Energy Department has fewer than 16,000 employees and more than 92,000 contractors.
‘‘Unfortunately for the taxpayer . . . cost overruns, schedule delays, and technical failures are the rule, not the exception,’’ said McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. ‘‘We need to find a better way to do this because we can’t just afford the status quo anymore.’’
The retired head of one of those contractors, former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norman Augustine, told Congress last spring that the absence of day-to-day accountability and an ineffectual structure at the nuclear security administration pose a national security risk.
He described a ‘‘pervasive culture of tolerating the intolerable and accepting the unacceptable.’’
Energy Department and the nuclear security administration officials agree that there are problems. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said earlier this month that addressing the cost overruns, and also embarrassing security breaches at some facilities, is a top priority. A congressionally appointed panel, cochaired by Augustine, recently began studying a potential overhaul of the nuclear security administration.
Moniz acknowledged some projects had seen ‘‘substantial cost overruns’’ and said he considers the review by the panel ‘‘a good chance to . . . have this dialogue and reach a conclusion.’’
‘The post-Cold War nuclear warhead complex has become a gigantic self-licking ice cream cone for contractors.’ — Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group
A nuclear security administration spokesman referred the Associated Press to congressional testimony by the agency’s project and acquisitions manager, Bob Raines, who said projects completed in the last two years had met cost goals and finished under budget.
‘‘We are making progress,’’ Raines testified in March before a House subcommittee.
These issues at the nuclear security administration aren’t new. The agency, along with the Defense Department and programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, is cited regularly in a Government Accountability Office report of agencies considered ‘‘high-risk’’ due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, and mismanagement or because they are most in need of broad reform.
However, the nuclear labs are getting renewed scrutiny in light of forced across-the-board federal budget cuts and security lapses such as an incident last year in Tennessee.
Before finally being detected, an elderly nun and two other protesters cut through security fences, hung banners and crime-scene tape, and hammered off a small chunk of a building inside the complex that is the nation’s central repository for bomb-grade uranium.