I came across this story in Slashdot the other day ...
I was incredulous and had always assumed that military types save lots of records ... in the last year we had been issued with my father's World War II Australian Army service records. And thinking back to TV shows like Cold Case and documentaries on the 1919 Influenza Pandemic tends to lull you into a belief that the USA has enormous records repositories with nothing thrown away.
The story was released to Slashdot by Hugh Pickens on March 9 2009 and within a day was relayed across over 500 web pages globally presumably via RSS feeds and blog following. The situation is astonishing - and indicates the cost of not maintaining good archives ... it was hard to believe, but then more conventional news sites were also running the story, including Fox News on March 9 2009 . Within 3 days the 500 web pages had to grown to over 1500 covering the story. In fact initially the story seemed to be just a beat-up & re-run of a New Scientist story covered a year earlier in its March 8 2008 issue and the UK's Guardian also on March 6 2008. However those aspects did not seem to feature in the US Congressional Defense FY 2009 Expenditure Hearings transcripts.
Hugh Pickens wrote "The US and the UK are trying to refurbish the aging W76 warheads that tip Trident missiles to prolong their life and ensure they are safe and reliable but plans have been put on hold because US scientists have forgotten how to manufacture a mysterious but very hazardous component of the warhead codenamed Fogbank. 'NNSA had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s, and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency,' says the report by a US congressional committee.
Fogbank is thought by some weapons experts to be a foam used between the fission and fusion stages of the thermonuclear bomb on the Trident Missile and US officials say that manufacturing Fogbank requires a solvent cleaning agent which is 'extremely flammable' and 'explosive,' and that the process involves dealing with 'toxic materials' hazardous to workers.
'This is like James Bond destroying his instructions as soon as he has read them,' says John Ainslie, the co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, adding that 'perhaps the plans for making Fogbank were so secret that no copies were kept.' Thomas D'Agostino, administrator or the US National Nuclear Security Administration, told a congressional committee that the administration was spending 'a lot of money' trying to make 'Fogbank' at Y-12, but 'we're not out of the woods yet.'"
And it might have all seemed like a conspiracy story by the Anti-Nuclear Fraternity ... however in fact it is all officially reported in a March 2009 US GAO (Government Accountability Office) Report - viz
"At the beginning of the W76 life extension program in 2000, NNSA identified key technical challenges that would potentially cause schedule delays or cost overruns. One of the highest risks was manufacturing Fogbank because it is difficult to manufacture. In addition, NNSA had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency. Finally, NNSA had to build a new facility at the Y-12 plant because the facilities that produced Fogbank ceased operation in the 1990s and had since been dismantled, except for a pilot plant used to produce small quantities of Fogbank for test purposes.
To address these concerns, NNSA developed a risk management strategy for Fogbank with three key components:
(1) building a new Fogbank production facility early enough to allow time to re-learn the manufacturing process and resolve any problems before starting full production;
(2) using the existing pilot plant to test the Fogbank manufacturing process while the new facility was under construction; and
(3) developing an alternate material that was easier to produce than Fogbank.
However, NNSA failed to effectively implement these three key components. As a result, it had little time to address unexpected technical challenges and no guaranteed source of funding to support risk mitigation activities."
Ultimately a new facility was built at the Y-12 National Security Complex near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to begin production of Fogbank once again, but was delayed by poor planning, cost overruns and a failed effort to find an alternative to Fogbank, and so the project overran by a crucial year costing at least an extra $US69 million according to the GAO report.
Interestingly, some sort of solution must have been found as one refurbished W76 has just gone back into the stockpile, according National Nuclear Security Administration's February 23 2009 media release.
It is interesting that there is little widespread coverage of the story at all in the international mainstream media and that the story has been largely passed on by bloggers and sites like Slashdot. And there seems to have been no coverage from the Australian mainstream media here, at all... only by Australian bloggers. Is it a surprise that more are turning to their favourite blogs/RSS feeds-Readers and web sites to locate the news they wish to read ?
In fact the March 2009 GAO report of the whole saga provides a good case study for students of Project Management 101 & Knowledge Management 101, on the pitfalls of managing large projects. Plus why lessons learned need to be not only captured, but deployed and implemented.