On Tuesday, May 23, the Trump administration released its Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) budget request. In an overall federal budget where many, many programs faced severe budget cuts, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is on the receiving end of a proposed 11 percent budget increase (at least by the Trump administration’s accounting – more on that in a following post).
The NNSA is responsible for maintaining US nuclear weapons, controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, and producing, handling and disposing of fissile materials as needed. Much of the agency’s increase is under “Weapons Activities” – the programs designed to maintain US nuclear weapons and related efforts – while funding for efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons face budget cuts. That continues a trend that began in the Obama administration: more funding for weapons, less funding for nonproliferation.
In this post and the following two (The Bad and The Ugly), I take a closer look at NNSA’s budget. Let’s start with the good news.
Ending MOX (Or Trying To, Again)
Perhaps the best news concerns the fate of the problematic “MOX” program to dispose of excess US plutonium. The Trump administration is wisely proposing to “terminate the MOX project and pursue the dilute & dispose (D&D) option as an alternative.” Under this project, excess plutonium, mostly from dismantled US nuclear weapons, would be turned into MOX—or “mixed oxide” nuclear fuel and burned in commercial US nuclear reactors. UCS has long opposed the MOX program because of its high cost and security risks. Under the dilute and dispose option, the plutonium would instead be diluted with non-radioactive materials and disposed of in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, which is a geologic repository for military materials, including plutonium.
The Battle between Congress and the Obama Administration
The MOX fuel fabrication facility is in South Carolina, and the program only survives because of the support of state politicians who benefit from the program’s spending excesses.
For many years, Congress has provided enough funding to keep the MOX program alive, but not enough for major progress to be made on completing the enormous facility required to produce the plutonium-laced nuclear fuel. Frustrated with the lack of progress, the Obama administration proposed in FY2015 to put the program on “cold standby,” halting construction while other options were considered. Congress refused to allow it, insisting that construction continue.
But Congress also again refused to provide sufficient funding to allow substantial progress in construction of the MOX plant. An independent study of the MOX program, requested by NNSA, found that if the level of funding Congress had been supporting—around $375 million annually—was all that could be provided, the MOX plant would not start operating until fiscal year 2100 and the life-cycle cost to finish the project would amount to a whopping $110.4 billion.
That study was part of a series of studies that all found the MOX program would cost far more than initially estimated, and take decades to complete. As a result, in FY2016 the Obama administration decided to cancel the MOX program outright, and to pursue the dilute and dispose option to get rid of the excess plutonium.
Unfortunately, largely because of the strong support for MOX from Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other members of the South Carolina delegation, Congress again refused to comply, and insisted on continued construction of the MOX plant to the tune of $340 million in FY2016.
The exact same pattern was repeated in FY2017, with Congress ultimately appropriating $335 million for construction of the MOX plant, rejecting the Obama administration’s decision to cancel the project.
Will Trump win the battle with Congress?
Now we will see if the Trump administration has better luck convincing Congress to do the right thing. The path it has chosen is identical to what the Obama administration proposed: cancel MOX and pursue dilute and dispose. It requested $279 million in the FY2018 budget to begin the process of shutting down the program.
A key factor will be the role of Sen. Graham, the most influential voice in support of the MOX program. He sits on the two committees – Appropriations and Armed Services – that have oversight of the program. Last year, according to sources, the Appropriations committee punted the issue to Armed Services, which agreed to cancel the program. That is, until Sen. Graham heard of the decision, and called his good friend Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chair of the Armed Services Committee. The decision was reversed, and MOX lived another year.
But now it is the Trump administration canceling the program. Sen. Graham has never had a particularly good relationship with President Trump, nor does Sen. McCain. Will politics trump sanity again, or will we finally see the end of MOX?
No News is Good News
The other “good news” in the Trump administration’s NNSA budget request is the lack of anything particularly “new.” Despite rhetoric from President Trump that the United States needs to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” this budget request does not propose building additional warheads. It issues no call for new types of warheads, new military capabilities or new roles for nuclear weapons. And it makes no mention of resuming nuclear testing, something the United States wisely abandoned back in 1992, leading to an international moratorium on testing that only North Korea is violating. In most respects, this budget request simply continues the vision spelled out by the Obama administration in its final years in office (with some minor changes described in the upcoming piece, The Bad).
This does not mean, however, that significant changes are not possible in the future. The Trump administration is undertaking a comprehensive nuclear posture review, and military officials have testified that any major changes in US nuclear policy or posture—including a push for new weapons—will await the outcome of that study. Secretary of Defense Mattis ordered the effort to take no more than six months, which would allow any decisions to be incorporated into the Trump administration’s FY2019 request. That is where any new vision developed by President Trump and his team will come into play.