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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Lawmakers Mixed on Nuclear Funding

Wade Boese

As Congress nears the end of its session this fall, lawmakers still must hash out the next annual budget for the U.S. nuclear complex. One area of general agreement is boosting funding for a new category of nuclear warhead, but lawmakers are divided on spending for dismantling older weapons and disposing of excess U.S. and Russian nuclear materials.

The House, which overwhelmingly passed an energy and water appropriations bill May 24 containing $6.4 billion in nuclear weapons spending, is waiting on the Senate to complete a parallel bill so differences between the two can be reconciled. On June 29, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a version of the bill for full Senate consideration. The appropriations would cover operations of the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) for fiscal year 2007, starting Oct. 1.

NNSA, which manages the U.S. nuclear inventory, is promoting a two-year-old initiative, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, as essential for ensuring the arsenal’s future longevity and viability. The project calls for developing warheads that allegedly would be easier to maintain and safer than existing models because of new components and designs. However, the new warheads are supposed to conform closely enough to proven designs to avoid the need for a resumption of nuclear testing, which the United States halted in 1992.

Congress is buying into the concept; the House bill increases the administration’s original $28 million request to almost $53 million, while the Senate committee raised the total to nearly $63 million.

Still, House lawmakers led by House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-Ohio) are more skeptical of the RRW program. The House bill mandates that the JASON Defense Advisory Group review the two designs currently vying to be the first RRW model—NNSA intends to make a selection in November—and judge the feasibility of developing a new warhead that does not require proof testing. Comprised of scientists, the independent JASON group often advises the U.S. government on defense and technology issues.

In a May 19 report, the House Appropriations Committee stated it “supports the RRW [program], but only if it is part of a larger package of more comprehensive weapons complex reforms.” This conditional support reflects in large measure Hobson’s view that the nuclear complex is excessive, outdated, and wasteful. From his perspective, a successful RRW program would lessen the need to maintain thousands of backup warheads in case of technical malfunctions in deployed weapons, thus enabling trimming of the stockpile and its associated infrastructure.

The Senate committee bill was influenced significantly by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), whose state houses two national nuclear weapons laboratories. The bill is more forceful in backing the RRW program, instructing NNSA to “expand the RRW program immediately” by using $10 million to launch another design competition for a second RRW model.

Support for warhead dismantlement activities also is uneven. The House bill provides $105 million for this work, a $30 million increase from the administration’s request. But the Senate committee bill only allocates $35 million total.

A more profound divergence exists around a delayed U.S.-Russian program under which each country is to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium—four kilograms is sufficient for a nuclear bomb—by blending the material into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors. The project has been stalled by a liability dispute that U.S. officials claim is now resolved, although Russia must still sign the final document settling the matter. (See ACT, September 2005.)

But Hobson, arguing that Moscow does not plan to implement the program as agreed in 2000, led the House in cutting $320 million slated for building MOX project facilities in South Carolina. Russia does not favor the MOX approach but instead wants to use the plutonium as fuel for advanced reactors, which, if run in certain ways, could lead to the production of more plutonium than that burned up. Hobson is recommending that the U.S. plutonium be rendered unusable for weapons by immobilizing it with glass or ceramic in storage casks.

South Carolina lawmakers, the Bush administration, and Domenici all oppose the House action. At a July 26 hearing of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, NNSA chief Linton Brooks warned that switching from MOX to immobilization was a “bad idea” because it could lead Russia to “completely reconsider” fulfilling its plutonium-disposal commitment. Acknowledging that costs associated with the primary U.S. MOX facility have grown from $1.4 billion to $4.7 billion, Brooks contended immobilization would not necessarily save money, as Hobson asserts, because the method remains technically unproven.

Domenici and the Senate Appropriations Committee also support U.S. continuation of the MOX approach, regardless of whether Russia follows suit. The committee approved $618 million for the project. It further encouraged the administration to “find a mutually acceptable solution” with Moscow but warned it does not support Russia’s use of advanced reactors.

The House and Senate also appear to be on a collision course over another project with Russia involving the shutdown of its last three plutonium-producing civilian reactors and their replacement by fossil fuel plants. (See ACT, April 2005.) The House bill fully funds the administration’s request of $206 million, but the Senate committee eliminated all funding for the effort, which is scheduled for completion by 2010. In its report, the committee stated it has “run out of patience with the Russians” and they can complete the work on their own using “windfall gains from oil and gas sales.”

An administration proposal to revive commercial recycling of spent nuclear fuel is shaping up to be another source of friction between the two chambers. Strongly supported by Domenici, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (see ACT, March 2006) is slated by the Senate committee for $36 million more than the administration’s $250 million request. The House bill only appropriates $120 million for the initiative, however, a cut Hobson explained May 24 that stems from “serious policy, technical, and financial reservations.”

The future of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative is clearer. The Senate committee bill bumps up funding for the collection of programs to secure global nuclear materials by $10 million to almost $117 million. The House initially granted a $13 million increase to the initiative but added another $28 million through an amendment by Reps. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa).