Trimming the Nuclear Weapons Budget

June 16, 2011 | 3:27 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

The House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the Energy and Water Appropriations bill yesterday. The Committee recommended $7 billion for nuclear weapons activities, $195 million above fiscal year 2011 levels but $497 million below the President’s request. The Committee’s report on the bill seeks increased oversight and transparency for programs we have raised concerns about over the past year.

The bill demonstrates how bloated the nuclear weapons budgets became because of the New START debate, when many senators demanded funding increases for nuclear weapons. The House Energy and Water bill cut almost $500 million from nuclear weapons programs without jeopardizing any of the major initiatives the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is planning over the next 10 years or compromising the safety, security, or reliability of the stockpile.

For our take on the key provisions …

B61 Life Extension Program

The Committee allocated $279 million for the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP), $55 million more than the administration requested. Much if not all of the increase stems from moving funds previously listed under stockpile stewardship. However, half of the funding, or $139 million, is withheld, or “fenced” until the NNSA completes the current phase of the study on the warhead under the terms the Committee lays out below.

We recently wrote about our concerns regarding the planned B61 LEP, based in part on a recent GAO report on the project, and noted that the House E&W Appropriations Subcommittee had fenced some of the funding for it. The full Committee’s report, released yesterday, explains why, pointing out that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)

has failed to make needed improvements to its acquisition process for life extension programs known as the Phase 6.x process. In its recent investigation in the B61 life extension activities, the Government Accountability Office found that current management practices are resulting in unrealistic schedule goals, and that the acquisition process needs to be revised to require that future life extension studies are properly scoped for the available time…. The NNSA must take immediate steps to address its weak acquisition process for life extension activities to assure the Committee that it will be able to accomplish these tasks before approaching the end of the weapon’s service life or the service life of components that must be replaced.

In an attempt to solve this problem, the Committee’s report provides detailed new transparency and accountability requirements for the the Phase 6.x process. They include a “cost-benefit analysis of warhead enhancements, such as those for safety and security, as well as a technology maturation risk management plan to mange the development of any components or production processes that have relatively low technology readiness levels.”

This builds on new requirements set out in last year’s defense authorization bill, which called for standards to judge the feasibility and cost of proposed new safety and security features for warheads. Clearly, there is a growing concern in Congress about NNSA’s desire to implement numerous warhead alterations for safety and security purposes. This concern is justifiable given the potential problems cited by independent experts like the JASON group about the risks of making significant changes to warheads as a part of life extension programs.

Report on Footprint Reduction

According to the NNSA, part of the reason to build new nuclear weapons production facilities is to reduce the overall footprint of the infrastructure. In a February 6, 2008 presentation about international commitments to strengthen nonproliferation, NNSA claims that it is “projected to reduce the footprint of buildings and structures supporting weapons missions by as much as a 1/3, going from greater than 35 million square feet to less than 26 million.” We have never paid much attention to discussions about reducing square footage because we measure production facilities in terms of how much and what they can produce, not how many square feet they take up.

However, the Committee has doubts regarding NNSA’s claim that it is reducing the overall size of the nuclear weapons complex. The report states, “Despite promises for a leaner, more efficient and streamlined enterprise, the NNSA footprint has actually been growing over the past few years. Both the Uranium Processing Facility and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project will have more square footage that the legacy facilities they are meant to replace, and the High Explosives Pressing Facility will occupy nearly seven times the space of the current operations.” The report states that, while new construction is adding to the footprint, no funding is planned for demolition.

In terms of excess capacity, the High Explosives Pressing Facility (HEPF) is particularly troubling. It will more than double the production capacity for high explosives, from 1000 pounds to 2,500 pounds per year, and almost double the number of explosive hemispheres for nuclear weapons Pantex is capable of producing, from 300 to 500 annually. When the total stockpile of deployed strategic weapons will soon fall to 1,550 warheads, it is unclear why NNSA needs such a high rate of production for these components. One possible explanation is that this facility was sized to support the Modern Pit Facility (MPF), which would have produced 250 plutonium pits per year. However, Congress eliminated the MPF in 2005. Should someone tell NNSA?

Improving the Safety of Transporting Nuclear Weapons

In April, we raised questions about whether the United States was doing everything it could to secure nuclear weapons during transportation. The Committee seems to have the same questions, asking NNSA to “investigate the feasibility and costs of enhancing the safety of transporting nuclear weapons where possible.”

Advanced Certification

The Committee allocated $19 million for Advanced Certification, $75 million below the Administration’s request.

The Committee states, “The activities under this subprogram were originally focused on addressing comments of the JASONs scientific advisory group on the ability to certify the Reliable Replacement Warhead. That program has been cancelled and the Administration has stated it does not intend to produce a new nuclear weapon. Therefore, it is unclear why such large increases are being requested and the recommendation provides funding consistent with pre-NPR [Nuclear Posture Review] levels.” That certainly seems a sensible decision by the committee.

Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement, Los Alamos

The Committee allocated $200 million for the CMRR-NF, $100 million below the Administration’s request and $25 million below FY11 funding levels.

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) will be a new facility focused on studying nuclear materials. However, it will also allow NNSA to increase significantly its capacity to produce plutonium pits, the core of a nuclear bomb, from 20-30 per year to 50-80 per year. The facility has faced sharply rising costs and questions about how NNSA decided it needed that level of pit production capacity.

Rather than focusing on those questions, the Committee addressed the NNSA’s penchant for starting construction of major facilities before planning is completed, a concern other groups have appropriately shared. The report states:

The latest funding profile provided to the Committee indicates that over half the funding requested for the Nuclear Facility would be used to start early construction activities. The recommendation will support the full request for design activities, but does not provide the additional funding to support early construction. The NNSA is not prepared to award that project milestone since it must first resolve major seismic issues with its design, complete its work to revalidate which capabilities are needed, and make a decision on its contracting and acquisition strategies.

The Committee also mentions a very important point about making sure that these enormous construction facilities do not undermine other modernization programs:

Modernization will take several years and the considerable number of variables still at play argues against an excessively aggressive funding curve. The construction of the new major facilities must not force out available modernization funding for the rest of the nuclear security enterprise.

We would go further, and warn that the complex and expensive plans for the CMRR and the Uranium Processing Facility, combined with aggressive LEPs for several warheads, may undermine the most critical purpose of the NNSA: maintaining a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile for as long as it exists. In other words, is the NNSA biting off more than it can chew?

Mixed Oxide Fuel and Pit Disassembly and Conversion

The Mixed Oxide (MOX) program seeks to manage the stockpile of surplus plutonium from dismantled U.S. nuclear weapons by blending it with uranium and using it as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors. The report notes several serious problems with the program that we have also highlighted. It states  that “NNSA has failed in several aspects of management for this program.” The Committee calls on NNSA to “prove it has not undertaken an expensive and wasteful program which will ultimately produce a fuel that industry does not want or that presents unnecessary risks that exceed any nonproliferation benefits.

However, rather than suspending the program as we recommended, the Committee fully funds it at $385 million, while asking NNSA to conduct a “thorough assessment of the safety and performance of the MOX fuel in the boiling water reactors at Fukushima Daiichi…”

Instead, the Committee reserves its disdain for the troubled plan to create a capacity to disassemble and convert the plutonium pits from nuclear warheads into feedstock for the MOX program. Initially, NNSA proposed a new “Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility” (PDCF), but rising costs led them to consider installing the facility in an existing building at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The report notes that, despite spending $650 million, “NNSA has failed to even make a decision between constructing a new greenfield facility or recapitalizing existing facilities,” and cuts the budget from $176 million to $20 million.

In our view, this only furthers the case for suspending construction on the MOX fuel plant, which could be idled for years if the PDCF is not brought on line by the end of the decade, but perhaps another year of troubles will convince Congress of the wisdom of that position.

Almost Unmentioned: The W-78 LEP

We have recommended skipping or, at a minimum, postponing the planned life extension program for the W-78 warheads, which sit atop some 250 Minuteman III missiles. Those missiles are scheduled for retirement in 2030, five years after the earliest date the W-78 LEP could be completed, and it is unclear whether and how the missile will be replaced. Moreover, it is possible that the U.S. will decide it does not need two types of warheads on its land-based missiles, in which case it would make sense to deploy just the W-87, which recently completed its life-extension program. But the Committee merely notes that the start of the LEP conceptual study was delayed (as a result of the prohibition on starting new projects when the government is operating under a Continuing Resolution) and adjusts funding accordingly.

About the author

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Stephen Young lobbies administration officials, members of Congress, and journalists to advance UCS security-related campaigns, largely focusing on arms control, nuclear weapons policy, missile defense, and nuclear threat reduction programs. He also works with scientists across the country to help amplify their concerns on critical national security policies.