The usual Republican suspects keep criticizing the Fiscal Year 2013 request for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons activities account because it doesn’t keep pace with the plan, outlined in the November 2010 update to what’s known as the Section 1251 report, to spend $88 billion on the nuclear weapons complex between FY 2011 and FY 2020.
For example, the Republican Policy Committee (remember them?) recently argued that the President broke his pledge to modernize nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure and that the FY 2013 budget request “is well below what is needed for national security.”
In her opening statement at a March 21 Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the FY 2013 NNSA budget request, Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), responded that the request of $7.63 billion for weapons activities “provides more than sufficient funding to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile.”
We agree with Sen. Feinstein.
While Rep. Turner, Sen. Kyl, et. al. believe we ought to spend more money on weapons activities at all costs, Sen. Feinstein reminded us that throwing money at programs that are egregiously over budget and behind schedule or turn out to be unnecessary is not the best use of scarce resources in a time of fiscal austerity:
However, I would like to highlight management issues that raise serious concerns about NNSA’s ability to contain costs and effectively spend taxpayer dollars at the request level, let alone at higher levels. NNSA’s projects are over budget. The most recent examples of significant cost increases and scheduled slips include, one, the cost of a new uranium facility at Y-12 in Tennessee, known as the Uranium Processing Facility. This has grown from 600 million (dollars) to $6 billion. It is 10 times more expensive than originally projected.
The B61 Life Extension Program is expected to be 1 billion (dollars) to 2 billion (dollars) more than originally projected and two years behind schedule. The cost of a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos, which has now been delayed, grew from 660 million (dollars) to $5 billion, six times more expensive than originally projected — and was facing a seven-year delay. And finally, the cost of the new facility to down-blend pit plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel at Savannah River in South Carolina grew from 1.4 billion (dollars) to 5 billion (dollars), four times more expensive than originally projected and 14 years behind schedule. And the list goes on.
It is clear to me at least that NNSA does not have good cost estimating practices, making it impossible to determine the actual cost of a project and whether the benefit outweighs the costs. The solution for these cost increases cannot be solely just providing more and more funding.
Third, NNSA has failed to assess alternatives before embarking on multibillion dollar projects. I know this is harsh, but if it can be — if you can prove what’s being said is not correct, I would like to hear it. NNSA has just terminated or delayed two major construction projects after spending a billion and a half dollars, only to conclude that it could use existing facilities to meet mission requirements. Those funds could have been better-spent on other nuclear weapons and nonproliferation activities, and it raises questions about the return on the taxpayer’s investment.
At a time of fiscal constraint, NNSA must be more cost-conscious and do a better job developing realistic and credible cost estimates for major projects, or else cost overruns and schedule delays will undermine the nuclear modernization agenda and nonproliferation goals.