The search for federal budget savings was apparent as the Senate Appropriations Committee released its version of the fiscal year 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill on September 7. While the Committee recommended $7.19 billion for nuclear weapons programs, approximately $250 million more than the fiscal year 2011 enacted level and over $800 million more than the fiscal year 2010 enacted level, it made major strides in addressing some excessive and wasteful nuclear weapons programs.
The Committee took on the Life Extension Program (LEP) for the B-61 bomb, the plan to build the Uranium Processing Facility and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at the same time, and Scaled Experiments. The Committee’s strong language on LEPs and construction projects is a welcome surprise. These programs were a central part of the nuclear weapons funding debate that took place in the context of the consideration of the New START treaty for much of the past two years.
The Committee made it clear that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) cannot complete all of its major life extension and construction projects as planned and sustain its other activities given the current fiscal environment. Rather than move forward with multiple programs that are unlikely to be completed on time or on budget, the Senate bill provides NNSA with a good opportunity to prioritize the programs that are most essential to its primary mission, which is to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the absence of nuclear testing.
B61 Life Extension Program
The Committee recommended $180,000,000 for the B61 life extension program, a reduction of $43,562,000 below the Obama administration’s request. The B61 Life Extension Program is slated to be the most extensive and expensive program to modernize an existing nuclear warhead NNSA has ever undertaken. In its report, the Committee notes that the B61 LEP would replace three times as many major components as the LEP for the W76 warhead and incorporate “untried” technologies. Given the unprecedented scope of the LEP, the Committee also raised concerns about NNSA’s ability to execute such a comprehensive program. These concerns—which included meeting production schedules, manufacturing critical materials and components, and the quality of final products—echoed those raised in a report by the Government Accountability Office earlier this year.
The bill also attempts to address a major flaw in NNSA’s planning for LEPs. As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists pointed out last year, NNSA’s goal for LEPs appears to be to enhance the safety and security of nuclear weapons “independent of any threat scenario.” While it is important to ensure that nuclear weapons are safe and secure, there need to be clear baselines to determine how much safety and security is enough, lest there be no limits on what NNSA attempts to pursue. To address this issue, the Committee laid out a number of practical reporting requirements that will hopefully help to ensure that LEPs only add the most essential safety and security features and do not compromise the reliability of the weapon. These requirements include:
1. A JASON defense advisory group report to determine “whether proposed intrinsic nuclear warhead safety and security features for the B61 bomb will affect the long-term safety, security, reliability, and operation of the weapon, whether these surety features are justified when measured against the plausible range of deployment scenarios and threats likely to confront the future B61 stockpile, and the benefits outweigh the costs of installing such features.”
2. Certification from the NNSA Administrator and nuclear weapons lab directors “that the benefits of installing intrinsic safety and security features outweigh the costs and there are no less costly and effective alternatives to surety that can be accomplished without introducing intrinsic surety features.”
3. A report from NNSA that includes “a description of the safety and security features NNSA would add to a refurbished B61” and “a cost and benefit analysis of installing the proposed features in the warhead.” The cost benefit analysis will include: the costs of science, technology, and engineering to install new safety and security features; the costs of assessing the impact the new features may have on the performance of the nuclear explosive package at the national laboratories; the extent to which the proposed safety and security features address specific safety and security concerns; and why current safety and security features would not be sufficient.”
These new reporting requirements could be the first step toward the development of a less ambitious plan for the B61 LEP. Instead of being able to endlessly “improve” safety and security without any publicly stated rhyme or reason, NNSA will have to explain how the modifications it seeks are actually connected to the current security environment. With current plans for the B61 LEP far exceeding $4 billion, NNSA should be able to develop a less expensive strategy for ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of the weapon.
W78 Life Extension Program
Notably, the committee recommended a $25 million decrease for the W78 Life Extension Program on the grounds that there have been delays in the Defense Department and NNSA’s effort to determine basic features and concepts for the LEP.
Large Construction Projects
NNSA is currently designing the two largest and most expensive construction projects in its history, the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF), which would manufacture in Tennessee uranium components for nuclear weapons, and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR), which would manufacture in New Mexico plutonium pits for nuclear weapons. With little more than 50% of the UPF designed, it is already estimated to cost as much as $7.5 billion. Also still in the design phase, the CMRR is estimated to cost approximately $5.8 billion. As design is completed and construction begins, both of these estimates are likely to increase. The Committee’s report expresses concern about these exploding costs and noted that, because NNSA’s “highest priority” should be LEPs, “fiscal constructs will limit construction funding.”
In an attempt to manage fiscal realities, the Committee report asks NNSA to submit a plan “that would identify the consequences to cost, scope, and schedule of delaying project implementation and the impact of sequencing (emphasis added) construction of these two major facilities on stockpile requirements.” The idea of sequencing construction of the UPF and CMRR has been around for a few years, most notably in the 2009 final report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. The commission said that, if funding were not available to build both facilities concurrently, NNSA should build the CMRR first. As the CMRR is built, NNSA could look at ways to minimize the UPF’s size and cost, as well as learn more about reusing uranium components.
These two construction projects should be watched closely because NNSA has not provided a consistent and compelling case for how it intends to use these facilities. When pressed by Chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein at a Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this year, NNSA Administrator Tom D’agostino was unable to say how many plutonium pits the CMRR would produce, what kinds of pits would be produced, and for what purpose. This was not a lapse of memory by Administrator D’agostino. NNSA plans to build this facility before it decides how it will be used. Despite its argument that the facilities are needed to maintain the stockpile, neither the UPF nor the CMRR will be operational in time to support any of the currently planned LEPs. By the time they are scheduled to be completed in 2024, all nuclear weapons in the arsenal except for the W80 cruise missile and W87 warhead will have already been refurbished or in the middle of a refurbishment.
For some time, certain factions within NNSA have been interested in conducting scaled experiments at the Nevada Nuclear Security Site. Scaled experiments are subcritical tests using plutonium pits specifically designed not to produce a nuclear yield when detonated. Although only a small amount was requested for fiscal year 2012 to study these experiments, the committee made an important decision. NNSA cannot spend any money to design, prepare, or execute scaled experiments. The committee report also raises questions about the need or wisdom of pursuing scaled experiments further, stating that they “may not be needed for annual assessments of the current stockpile” and “may interfere with achieving the Nuclear Posture Review’s goals and schedule.” This is significant because, according to the committee report, NNSA currently lacks the diagnostic capabilities needed to collect the necessary data from these experiments. NNSA would need hundreds of millions of additional dollars beyond what is currently budgeted in order to install the necessary radiographic equipment and facilities.