Senate Appropriators Defy Administration on Nukes

by Kingston Reif and Gabrielle Tarini

A new Senate bill released at the end of July contains a number of small but critically important victories, most notably in the realm of funding nuclear material security and nonproliferation.

As a budget battle between the President and Congress rages on, there is a conspicuous difference in the level of funding requested by the White House versus that approved by Senate Appropriators for programs that make us safer from the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism. It is hard to understand why the Obama administration, whose stated priorities make nuclear nonproliferation a top priority, has for the past three years cut the budget for these very activities. Luckily, the Senate continues to restore the funding, as evidenced by its recent action. However, in past years the higher Senate funding levels have not survived in the final spending bills passed by Congress.

The contradiction between the President’s words about preventing nuclear terrorism and the dwindling resources he has requested in his budget submissions is concerning because it represents an unsustainable punt to Congress at a time when lawmakers are mandating significant reductions in government spending. Despite the Senate’s best efforts, Congress has not restored funding to sufficient levels in its final spending bills. What’s more, even the Senate’s current prioritization of nonproliferation programs could evaporate if the Senate changes hands next year.

Below is a summary of some of the key highlights of the bill’s recommendation for nonproliferation and nuclear weapons programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Nonproliferation

The report accompanying the FY 2015 Energy and Water Appropriations bill strongly condemned the Obama nonproliferation budget request, declaring that it “does not make nonproliferation activities a top priority” and “fails to provide the necessary resources to complete critical nonproliferation efforts.”

The White House proposed a 20 percent cut in spending on nuclear nonproliferation programs in its budget request for fiscal year 2015. The most harmful cuts were to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) and the International Nuclear Materials Protection (IMPC) program.

The report warned that the Obama administration is still not doing enough to address the “significant quantities of nuclear and radiological materials” that “are still unsecure and vulnerable to theft.”

The threat includes over 1,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium that are still sitting handful of countries, large quantities of plutonium that are still at risk, and over a hundred reactors that need to be converted to low enriched uranium or shut down.

In addition to the threat overseas, thousands of radiological sources at medical facilities in the U.S are “not well protected and could be used for radiological dispersal devices, which could cause serious economic, psychological and social disruption,” according to the report.

While the report credits the Obama administration with past successes, including removing all highly enriched uranium from 12 countries and completing security upgrades at dozens of buildings in Russia and other countries to reduce the threat of nuclear materials theft, it argues that the new, reduced budget would let other critical milestones slip.

For example, the goal of converting or shutting down 200 highly enriched uranium research reactors around the world would take 5 years longer and would not be completed until 2035—compared to the original goal of completing conversions by 2022. This would be a major setback considering that highly enriched uranium fueled research reactors have some of the world’s weakest security measures and according to the report, “a determined terrorist could use HEU reactor fuel for a nuclear device.”

Fortunately, the Committee has proposed to restore all funding to these critical nonproliferation programs. The Obama administration sought only $1.55 billion for defense nuclear nonproliferation activities by the Department of Energy in FY 2015, compared to $1.95 billion enacted in FY 2014. In July, the House passed a bill that upheld the administration’s proposed funding for these programs, including only a paltry increase to the GTRI a major decrease to the IMPC program. The new Senate report, however, recommended $1.98 billion for these activities.

Weapons Dismantlement

The Committee report included positive language on weapons dismantlement as well as an increase in funding for these activities.

Citing an April 2014 Government Accountability Office report, the Committee criticized the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) for failing to schedule the dismantlement of any weapons that are to be removed from the stockpile under the New START treaty.

Furthermore, the Committee recommended $40,008,000 (an increase of $10 million above the request) for weapons dismantlement and disposition activities due to concern that the administration’s proposed funding would not be sufficient for NNSA to meet its yearly dismantlement targets. Failure to meet such targets would mean that NNSA would be unlikely to achieve its goal of dismantling all weapons retired prior to FY 2009 by the end of FY 2022.

A New Nuclear-armed Cruise Missile

The Committee appropriately eliminated funding for a cruise missile warhead life extension study. The NNSA requested $9.4 million in its FY 2015 budget request for this study to refurbish the existing the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) warhead.

The report stated that NNSA had not provided sufficient justification for a life extension study, given that the existing warhead is not facing any aging, performance or reliability issues. The Committee stated that it is reluctant to provide funding for a new cruise missile warhead when the Air Force cannot identify sufficient funding in its budget planning documents to design and procure a cruise missile to deliver a refurbished warhead. The Pentagon’s FY 2015 budget request delayed the program to build a new air launched cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO), by three years.

B61 Life Extension Program

The administration requested $643 million for the B61 life extension program in FY 2015, making it the single largest line item within the NNSA nuclear weapons activities account. While the bill fully funds the B61 life extension program at the request level, it does grudgingly and in large part because NNSA’s gross mismanagement of the program left it with no other option.

The bill report scathingly states that “lower cost options were available that met military requirements. The Committee remains concerned about the affordability of this program, especially with likely sequester cuts starting again in fiscal year 2016….Given the highly integrated nature of the current B61 Mod 12 design, NNSA has no alternatives to the current design option, known as Option 3B, that would allow it to recuperate lost time and stay within the current budget estimate of $8,200,000,000. The only choice NNSA has is delaying the first production unit and incurring more costs. The Committee is concerned that increasing costs for the B61 Mod 12 will come at the expense of other nuclear modernization priorities, such as modernizing aging infrastructure, and critical nonproliferation activities to combat nuclear terrorism.”

MOX

The only regrettable outcome of the Senate bill was the increase in funding provided to continue construction of the flawed and unaffordable Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel program in South Carolina, which aims to dispose of excess weapons-grade plutonium by mixing it with uranium and burning it in civilian reactors. The administration FY 2015 budget proposed to put the MOX program in “cold standby” as it assesses alternatives to dispose of the plutonium.

The MOX program has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays, and the Department of Energy has yet to receive firm commitments from any utility to use the fuel. It is disappointing that the Committee would recommend funding levels of $515, 125, 000 for such a deeply problematic program. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) sits on the Energy and Water Subcommittee and no doubt played a large role in securing higher funding levels.

What’s up next?

It is not clear when the Energy-Water appropriations measure will become a law—if ever. The bill hasn’t even been approved by the full Senate Appropriations Committee. Full Senate consideration of the bill is almost certainly out of the question. Congress has failed to use the regular order for budget and appropriations bills for years now. So the fate of this funding is unknown. Some version that is a compromise with the House version of the bill will likely either be approved for Fiscal Year 2015 as part of a year-long Continuing Resolution or as part of an Omnibus Appropriations Bill tied together with other appropriation bills.

Final action is not likely to occur until after the Senate elections—and possibly not until after January 1 if Republicans take the Senate.