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Obama Cuts RRW Program

Scott Miller

President Barack Obama Feb. 26 provided the outlines of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2010, which begins Oct. 1. The outline, the details of which are expected to be filled in this month, includes a proposal to end the development of the controversial so-called reliable replacement warhead (RRW). Meanwhile, Congress March 10 finally approved a spending bill for Department of Energy nuclear energy and weapons programs for the current fiscal year.

The president's budget outline states that the administration no longer supports development of the RRW, a program intended to permit the design of new warheads. This marks a change from the previous administration, which sought funds for the RRW program but was rebuffed by the Democratic-controlled Congress each of the past two years. RRW advocates charge that the only way to ensure the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to fund the development of new warheads and weapon systems.

Critics of the RRW program believe that the best and most cost-effective way to ensure warhead reliability is through Energy Department Life Extension Programs (LEPs). These programs extend the life of U.S. nuclear warheads an additional 20 or 30 years by refurbishing and replacing parts that have deteriorated with the passage of time. Supporters say LEPs allow the United States to maintain its current arsenal in a way that is consistent with its nonproliferation goals and uphold its moratorium on nuclear testing.

As indicated in the 2010 budget outline, the Obama administration wants to continue Energy Department life extension efforts and commit significant resources toward threat reduction initiatives to secure fissile material and deter nuclear theft around the world. In the 2009 spending bill that was just passed, Congress allocated $395 million for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, aimed at securing nuclear material around the world, and $1.5 billion total for nonproliferation measures. The president's outline also states the administration's intention to develop a new strategy for nuclear waste management. The plan calls for scaling back the Yucca Mountain program while a new plan for waste disposal is developed.

The 2010 budget outline does not address other controversial programs advocated by the Bush administration, such as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Because funding for GNEP's near-term spent fuel reprocessing initiative was zeroed out in the 2009 spending bill, funding for this initiative in 2010 does not seem likely. The only funding GNEP received was $145 million for its research arm, the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative. GNEP has been well received abroad, accumulating 25 member states and many more observer states. Domestically, critics of GNEP have argued that the partnership increases proliferation risks by spreading nuclear material and does not effectively manage nuclear waste.