by Daryl G. Kimball
Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee marked up the fiscal year 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which includes funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration's nuclear weapons activities, commonly referred to as the "nuclear weapons complex."
Early news accounts have overlooked the fact that the House Energy and Water Appropriations bill would increase—not decrease—the NNSA weapons activities budget above the previous year's level, and has allocated more than enough money to keep programs on track but not so much as to be fiscally irresponsible in this fiscally-constrained time.
The Republican-led House appropriations committee would increase funding for NNSA weapons activities by 3% to $7.13 billion for fiscal 2012 from $6.99 for fiscal 2011. The fiscal 2010 appropriation for NNSA weapons activities was $6.36 billion.
The House appropriations bill allocation of $7.13 billion for fiscal 2012 is $500 million (7%) less than the Barack Obama administration's whopping $7.63 billion request.
According to the subcommittee report:
"The request for Weapons Activities is the second year of large increases requested in order to pursue the Administration's strategy set forth in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to maintain an aging stockpile through full scope life extension activities, to modernize the infrastructure and restore capabilities, and to address the immediate maintenance and production requirements of the stockpile."
The subcommittee report also notes that the NNSA's two major infrastructure projects—the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility at Los Alamos and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge—may now cost as much as $12 billion to construct. About $100 million of the $200 million requested for proposed CMRR facility at Los Alamos was cut by the committee. The CMRR and the UPF are not scheduled to be completed until the mid-2020s.
In his opening statement at the markup hearing June 14, House Energy and Water Subcommittee Chair Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) said, "Only in Washington could an increase of this magnitude be seen as a cut."
Frelinghuysen went on to say: "Yes, 'Weapons Activities' is below the President's request, but his request included hundreds of millions of dollars for construction projects that are not ready to move forward, capabilities that are secondary to the primary mission of keeping our stockpile ready, and, yes, slush funds that the administration has historically used to address its needs. The recommendation before you eliminates these weaknesses and it is responsible."
When Secretary of Defense Gates was asked to react to the House appropriations committee funding level, he unfortunately chose to engage in some irresponsible fear-mongering. Cutting the funds, he reportedly said, will hamper efforts to maintain the weapons themselves. "The risks are to our program in terms of being able to extend the life of our weapons systems, to modernize them not in the sense of capability, but in terms of security and reliability," Gates said.
While government program managers and contractors will always gripe about funding needs, minor cuts and cost savings in NNSA weapons spending over time won't change the fact that the NNSA weapons activities budget, at $7 billion this year and even more for the coming year, provides more than enough to get the job done.
Not only do the nuclear weapons laboratories have a deeper understanding of the arsenal than they ever did during the days of nuclear test explosion, but they also have more resources than ever.
The Obama administration's $88 billion, 10-year plan to operate the nuclear complex represents a 20 percent increase above funding levels proposed during the Bush administration.
What is important is that the nuclear weapons labs remain focused on the highest priority tasks and that they pursue conservative warhead life extension strategies that minimize unnecessary and expensive alterations to already well-understood warhead types.