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NNSA Nonproliferation Budget Shifts
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Daniel Horner

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is requesting $2.5 billion for its nonproliferation programs for fiscal year 2013, a figure that encompasses major increases for some programs and major cuts for others.

The request represents an overall increase of $163 million from the $2.3 billion the programs are receiving under the fiscal year 2012 appropriation.

Under the fiscal year 2013 request, a large increase would go to the effort to fabricate mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel from plutonium removed from the U.S. nuclear weapons program. MOX fuel is a mix of uranium oxide and plutonium oxide.

The request for the fissile materials disposition program is $921 million, up from the fiscal year 2012 appropriation of $685 million. As NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Anne Harrington noted, the 2012 figure is a decline from fiscal year 2011, when Congress provided $802 million. She said the fiscal year 2013 request would keep construction of the key facilities on schedule.

Harrington made the comments during a conference call with reporters on Feb. 13, the day the Obama administration released its budget request. According to the detailed budget justification document, the NNSA plans to ask for amounts in the range of $950 million to $1 billion for fissile material disposition in each fiscal year from 2014 to 2017.

Under current plans, the NNSA, which is part of the Department of Energy, will begin producing MOX fuel in 2016 and start loading the fuel into commercial reactors in 2018.

For work on the U.S. plutonium-disposition portion of the fissile materials disposition program, the NNSA is requesting $499 million, a jump from the fiscal year 2012 appropriation of $206 million. Part of that money would go to the “beginning of cold start-up activities.”

As part of the budget request, the NNSA announced it was canceling the project to build a Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility, which would have taken apart nuclear weapons pits and converted their plutonium metal into an oxide form suitable for the MOX fuel fabrication facility. A goal for the coming fiscal year is “the shift of work scope to provide steady state feedstock” to the fabrication plant in the absence of the canceled facility, according to the budget justification document.

The NNSA said it now plans to supply the feedstock by increased use of a smaller-scale disassembly and conversion facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the H-Canyon, a Cold War-era reprocessing facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

That site is also the location of the MOX fuel fabrication plant, which is under construction, and a supporting facility known as the Waste Solidification Building. It also was the planned home of the canceled disassembly facility. In the budget document, the NNSA said it was “optimistic” that the new approach would “result in significant cost savings.”

However, the MOX project is experiencing “increased pressure on project cost and schedule baselines” because of a shortage of qualified nuclear contractors, which has meant a lack of competition and therefore higher bids, the NNSA said in the budget document. The main contractor for the project, Shaw AREVA MOX Services, also is “experiencing significantly greater than expected turnover of experienced personnel,” which is “due to the expansion of the U.S. commercial nuclear industry,” the NNSA said. The NNSA reported those problems in last year’s budget request. (See ACT, March 2011.)

Other Big Changes

Elsewhere in the budget, the request for nonproliferation and verification research and development was $548 million, $194 million above the fiscal year 2012 appropriation. The bulk of that increase comes from a $150 million request, which the NNSA said was a “one-time addition,” to support research, development, and demonstration work toward a domestic uranium-enrichment capacity. According to the NNSA, the benefits of such a capacity include “discouraging the unnecessary spread of enrichment technology by contributing directly to sustained confidence in the international commercial enrichment market” and “improving the ability to detect proliferant programs.”

A principal beneficiary of the new money would be USEC Inc., which is building a gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment plant in Ohio. In a Feb. 13 press release, the company applauded the request.

The request for nonproliferation and verification research and development also included an $18 million increase from the fiscal year 2012 appropriation, to $241 million, for proliferation detection and a $26 million increase, to $158 million, for nuclear detonation detection.

Another part of the nonproliferation budget, international nuclear materials protection and cooperation, would drop from the $570 million appropriated for fiscal year 2012 to $311 million for fiscal year 2013. The bulk of the cut comes from the “second line of defense” program, which helps governments strengthen their borders and ports against trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials. The funding for the program would drop from $262 million to $93 million.

Two undertakings dealing with Russia also would see declines from their fiscal year 2012 appropriations. The “Strategic Rocket Forces/12th Main Directorate” effort, which aims to improve the security of Russian warheads, would dip from $59.1 million to $8.3 million, while weapons materials protection, which focuses on nuclear material security upgrades in Russia’s closed cities, would drop from $80.7 million to $47.0 million.

In all three cases, the NNSA said the cuts reflected the completion of planned work.

Less for GTRI

The request for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) is $466 million, a decrease from the fiscal year 2012 appropriation of $498 million. The GTRI is central to President Barack Obama’s goal of “secur[ing] all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years,” which he announced in his April 2009 Prague speech.

However, Harrington emphasized during the Feb. 13 conference call that the GTRI covers a variety of materials that are being addressed under different schedules and that only some of those materials are encompassed in the four-year effort. The NNSA is on track to meet that goal, but is in a “very constrained budget environment” and therefore has to make choices, she said. The reductions do not come from work that needs to be done to meet the four-year goal, she said.

Under the NNSA request, funding for international radiological material removal would drop to $8.0 million from the fiscal year 2012 appropriation of $20.0 million. Funding for the removal of Russian-origin nuclear material from research reactors and other facilities around the world would decline from $147 million to $102 million, but the NNSA’s budget justification document indicates that that removal of some nuclear material was accelerated by requesting funds in fiscal year 2012 for “long lead-time efforts that will support removals that occur in early [fiscal year] 2013 to meet the four-year deadline of December 31, 2013.”

Funding for the conversion of worldwide research reactors from use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium fuel would increase to $161 million from the $148 million that Congress appropriated for fiscal year 2012. Some of that funding would go to support U.S. companies in developing a “reliable domestic production capability” to produce the medical isotope molybdenum-99 without the use of HEU.

Posted: March 2, 2012