Quick Take on the FY 2017 NNSA Budget Request

February 11, 2016 | 3:26 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

Weapons Program Budgets Up, Nonproliferation Budget Down

On February 9, the Obama administration unveiled the Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, its final annual submission to Congress of this kind. In recent years, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency responsible for maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons and for helping to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, has seen its top-line budget increase even as government spending as a whole remains tightly constrained.

The FY 2017 request continues that trend, with a total request of $12.9 billion for the NNSA, compared to the $12.5 billion provided in FY 2016. However, that top-line hides a trend that also continues this year: The funding for U.S. nuclear weapons programs—already the vast majority of NNSA dollars—has grown over the years, while funding for programs to halt the spread of nuclear weapons has been declining regularly.

Specifically, the FY 2017 budget request for Weapons Activities is $9.2 billion, compared to the FY 2016 budget of $8.8 billion. The FY2017 budget request for nonproliferation programs overall is $1.8 billion, whereas the FY2016 budget stood at $1.9 billion. Looking just at core nonproliferation programs, the budget shows even starker declines.

The Good News: the Administration Plans to Terminate the MOX Program

Within the reduction in the nonproliferation budget, however, is the biggest single piece of good news in this year’s NNSA budget request: The agency is proposing to terminate the program to dispose of excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program by turning it into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for power reactors. The Union of Concerned Scientists has long called for canceling the MOX program because it would make it easier for terrorists to gain access to fissile material that could be used to make a nuclear weapon.

Instead of completing a MOX fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina, the administration plans to undertake a project to dilute much of the excess plutonium and dispose of it in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) repository in New Mexico. The NNSA will begin the process with 6 metric tons of impure excess plutonium currently stored in South Carolina.

However, the agency still faces some significant hurdles before it can use the dilute-and-dispose process for an additional 34 metric tons of plutonium that the U.S. committed to dispose of via the MOX fuel route under an agreement with Russia. For example, in 2014, the Obama administration attempted to put the MOX facility in “cold standby.” Congress rejected that plan, insisted that construction continue, and provided additional funding for it. This may happen again. Also, the WIPP facility was closed in 2014 because of a radiation leak, and officials hope to reopen it by the end of 2016. Additional environmental analysis will likely be necessary. And Russia will have to agree to a change in the proposed disposition method.

Despite these obstacles, the administration appears committed to pursuing the “dilute and dispose” option. Several independent reports commissioned by the Department of Energy concluded that the cost to complete the MOX program would be significantly greater than initial estimates, and that alternative approaches to disposing of the excess plutonium would be more affordable and less risky. Their conclusions were similar to those in a January 2015 UCS report that assessed a number of safer, cheaper alternatives to MOX, including the option of diluting the plutonium and disposing of it at the WIPP facility.

To carry out its plans, the NNSA is proposing to cut the MOX budget from $340 million for construction in FY 2016 to $270 million in FY 2017, and use that money to terminate the program. The NNSA is planning to begin pre-conceptual design as soon as possible for the dilute and dispose option and complete conceptual design in FY 2017. The budget request asks for permission to use $3-5 million for this work in FY 2016 and FY2017

The Weapons Budget

Unlike in past years, when for example some life extension programs were delayed or accelerated by years, there are no major changes to the nuclear weapons plans in the FY 2017 budget request. Instead, there are a few small hiccups. In particular, the ramp up in work on the life extension program for the W80 warhead, to be used in the controversial new nuclear-armed cruise missile under development, has been slipped slightly. This is because the FY 2016 funding for the program, which included a major increase, was not provided until December 2016, too late to allow the full workload for the year to be completed. As a result, rather than asking for $312 million as had been planned in last year’s request, the FY 2017 request is only for $220 million. The budget request hints at some schedule delays as well, but insists the NNSA will still deliver the first production unit by FY 20205, in order to meet the Air Force schedule for the cruise missile.

The largest program in the weapons budget continues to be the life extension program for B61 gravity bomb, and by a considerable margin. For FY 2017, the request is $616 million, down slightly from the FY 2016 budget of $643 million. In contrast, funding for the W76 life extension program is only $223 million, down from $244 million for the previous year. The B61 life extension program is much more expensive than that for the W76 warhead, even though the B61 bomb constitutes a far smaller portion of the total nuclear stockpile than the W76, which is the work horse of the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles. For comparison, reportedly 480 B61-12s are planned, while some 1,600 W76-1s are being produced. Despite that disparity in production numbers, the total cost of the B61 program is around $10 billion (or $20 million each), while the W76 will cost a more modest $4 billion (or $2.5 million each).

Increase for Dismantlement

One positive development is implementation of a promise the Obama administration made at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference to increase by 20% the rate at which the NNSA dismantles retired nuclear weapons. As a result, the budget request for dismantlement has increased by 33%, from $52 million in FY 2016 to $69 million in FY 2017. The increase will mean that weapons already retired by 2009 will be dismantled by FY 2021, one year earlier than previous plans. However, the overall dismantlement rate, which has hovered at around 300 weapons for several years, is far below the rates of 1,000 or more warheads dismantled annually during much of the 1990s.

Nonproliferation Programs

Aside from the good news about the MOX program described above, nonproliferation programs have faced tough times for several years running. In 2009, the Obama administration was planning to increase funding for these programs over time, from around $1.4 billion annually to $2 billion by 2014 (not including MOX funding). Instead, the top-line for core nonproliferation programs (excluding MOX) has fallen to around $1.2 billion. In part, this is a result of Russia’s lack of interest in continuing some programs combined with Congressional opposition to funding any work in Russia in light of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. NNSA officials also point to the track record of accomplishments that have addressed some of the greatest concerns about fissile materials not secured globally, a real success story.

It is also worth noting that this funding includes money to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to contain Iran’s nuclear program, one of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishments. According to officials at the NNSA, the amounts are relatively small—some $3 million in nonproliferation and arms control and $10 million in materials management budgets. The Iran deal is an enormous success at relatively low cost to the taxpayer. (Most of the cost of implementing the Iran deal is borne by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the administration’s budget requests $190 million for FY 2017 for the agency. More money will likely be required in the future to implement the JCPOA, but this burden will be shared by other partners in to the agreement.)

The Weapons Complex

Efforts to rebuild the nuclear weapons complex have created lots of problems for the NNSA. The Obama administration first sought to build the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement – Nuclear Facility, a massive facility that would undertake work to support the production of new plutonium pits used in the primary of nuclear weapons. However, cost estimates for the building skyrocketed and the need for new pits was delayed significantly, so that effort collapsed.

Next the NNSA sought to move forward on the Uranium Processing Facility, which would build the components using highly enriched uranium (HEU) for the secondary of nuclear weapons. The initial budget for the project was $600 million to $1 billion, but by 2013 had increased to $6.5 billion. However, when it became clear that the existing plans had a major flaw that would require an expensive re-design and further drive up overall costs, the NNSA brought in a “red team” to look at alternative approaches. The team proposed breaking the initial phase of the project into three separate buildings, and delaying inclusion of additional capabilities until later phases. By breaking the project apart this way, the NNSA managed to keep the budget of just the three buildings in the first phase at $6.5 billion.

To complete work on the UPF redesign, the NNSA is asking for $575 million, a $145 million increase over the FY 2016 level. Over $1.5 billion dollars has been spent already on the project, and the final design is still unfinished.