“Thank you for choosing to do work that matters” is painted in navy blue all-caps above two sets of double doors at the Kansas City National Security Campus (KCNSC) in southeast Kansas City, Missouri. The glass doors and their surrounding windows are covered with a large American flag laminate that glows as the sun shines through from outside.
The patriotic exit way is a reminder to all who pass through it that KCNSC’s mission—producing nonnuclear components for nuclear weapons—is essential to America’s national security and that the success of that mission is because of the plant’s 6,700 dedicated employees.
“The culture here is ‘commitments made, commitments kept’,” explains Director of Program Management Julie Aitkens, who has worked at Kansas City for nearly 23 years. “We’re Midwest. We’re not too confrontational. We like to get it done and make people happy.”
A secret mission
KCNSC was established as the Kansas City Division of the Bendix Corporation in 1949. Bendix—an American manufacturing company traditionally known for making automotive brake systems—had been selected by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to build the nonnuclear components of nuclear weapons. According to KCNSC’s website, “the employees guarded the nature of the mission so well that, for many years, the community assumed the plant made washing machines.”
Seventy-four years and several name changes later, KCNSC’s mission remains the same. The plant—now headquartered in a 1.95-million-square-foot facility in Kansas City with additional facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico—develops, procures, produces, and delivers more than 80 percent of the nonnuclear components in current and future U.S. nuclear weapons systems.
Nonnuclear components can be anything electrical, mechanical, or engineered that doesn't incorporate nuclear materials (such as plutonium and uranium). Nonnuclear components range from fiber optics and firing systems to radar systems, reservoirs, and items that are additively manufactured or made from special polymers and metals. Kansas City is also responsible for inspecting and testing the components made at the plant.
The birth of a part
The seven types of nuclear weapons in the current stockpile are decades old; many of them are undergoing (or have undergone or will undergo) updates to ensure their reliability and effectiveness now and into the future. These updates typically involve swapping out old components for new components.
The process starts when the design agency for a particular weapon component proposes an update. Los Alamos National Laboratory is the design agency for the nuclear explosives packages (which include nonnuclear parts) in the B61 bomb and the W76, W78, and W88 warheads; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is the design agency for the nuclear explosives packages in the B83 bomb and the W80 and W87 warheads. Sandia National Laboratories is the design agency for many nonnuclear components in all seven of these weapons systems.
As the production agency, Kansas City is almost immediately looped into the discussion. “We have a seat at the table very early because making design changes is easier when the design is not firm,” Aitkens explains. “It’s an iterative process; we are all equal partners, and we each have a lot of knowledge about what the other does.”
Many of the components requested by the design agencies are components that Kansas City has produced before—but not always. “The amount of crazy the design agencies give us is about 10 percent,” Aitkens laughs. “The ideas people have can seem so abstract—but we can make them real, or we can offer different, better solutions.”
The W93 warhead is an example of an abstract idea. The warhead doesn’t exist yet and may never exist, but Los Alamos, as the design agency, is leading studies and conversations to determine how this potential new weapon might materialize. “The W93 is a new system for all of us,” Aitkens says. “Understanding what that means is exciting, and we already have people who are more immersed in what it might look like, even though we aren’t making anything yet.”
Making a part
Once it’s been decided what components are needed, Kansas City either sources the components from a vendor, makes the components in house using parts and materials that are sourced from vendors, or a combination of the two.
“We have a huge vendor portfolio,” says communications manager Shaun Manley. “We reach into commercial industry. When we need something, and it's determined best to buy versus make, it’s our relationship with those vendors that means there is no impact to schedule.”
Kansas City also benefits from its Supply Chain Management Center, which develops purchasing agreements not just for itself but for 22 other Department of Energy (DOE) sites. The center saves time by ensuring that sites aren’t duplicating efforts, and it saves money by negotiating lower prices. “It’s the Costco or Sam’s Club rationale across the DOE,” Manley explains. “The 18 people who staff the center are saving millions of dollars for the entire nuclear enterprise and beyond.”
Once parts or materials have been purchased and delivered to Kansas City, weapons components are made and assembled in specific areas around the plant. “We have a lot under one roof; it’s a sea of manufacturing equipment,” Aitkens says. “The diversity in manufacturing is extreme, especially for one facility.”
Aitkens explains that the plant is arranged by process—electrical fabrication, for example—rather than by weapons system. “There’s not a B61 production line even though I would love for there to be one,” she says. “Components for the B61 get made all over. Our employees don’t necessarily know what parts go to what weapons. All parts just have to get done.”
Testing a part
Both the design and production agencies must consider that rate production—making hundreds or thousands of a weapons component—is very different than making just one component.
“Anyone can figure out how to make one component, but to make a lot of components to the exact specifications of the design agencies requires the workforce and machinery here at Kansas City,” Manley says. “I’m talking about parts that need to be assembled under microscopes using tweezers or parts that are so incredibly complicated they take years to build and assemble.”
Rate production is where Kansas City prides itself on quality. Aitkens explains that “quality needs to come first because components need to last for 30 years or longer.”
To ensure quality, Kansas City tests and inspects components. A component might be shaken, vibrated, accelerated, heated, cooled, dropped, spun, or shocked. “Whatever a nuclear weapon might go through—such as transportation, ejection, extreme environments, you name it—that’s what we are replicating,” Manley explains. “We want to make sure parts don’t break or change states when they’re not supposed to.”
If a component doesn’t perform as expected, a team of experts inspects it to find out why and then solve the problem. “Our people want to produce quality components,” Manley says. “Our pride is in being able to be able to hit specs.”
Out for delivery
Once a component is finished, it’s typically sent to the Pantex Plant, where it’s assembled into a weapon. Depending on the component, this milestone could come months or even years after Kansas City first began working on it. “That’s why we celebrate not just the milestones but also the inch-stones as we meet them,” says Natalie Burris, a senior program manager at Kansas City. “Every single person comes to the table to make our mission successful.” ★