The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a spending plan that would reduce the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration's proposed weapons and nonproliferation accounts by roughly $1 billion in the next budget.
The appropriations blueprint for fiscal 2012 would provide the nuclear agency with $10.6 billion to maintain the country's atomic arsenal, conduct nonproliferation activities around the world, and manage other efforts, including its naval nuclear reactor program and defense environmental cleanup initiatives.
That figure is $1.1 billion below President Obama's initial $11.7 billion budget request for the semi-autonomous branch of the Energy Department. The bulk of the reduction originates from the nuclear agency's nonproliferation and weapons accounts, with respective cuts of $463 million and $498 million.
Democrats, led by Appropriations Water and Energy Development Subcommittee Ranking Member Peter Visclosky, sharply criticized the proposed reductions.
"The allocation reduces our ability to counter the most serious threats confronting our national security and that's the threats of nuclear terrorism," the Indiana lawmaker said.
"Given the current instability in the Middle East and elsewhere, these programs have never been more important," added Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, the full committee's top Democrat. "I fear that we may not be able to provide the level of national security we need with these funding levels."
The funding measure provides roughly $30.6 billion in funding for the Energy Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as multiple regional water and power authorities.
It includes $35 million to support activities at Yucca Mountain, with $10 million for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue its review of the license application for the radioactive waste storage site. The Obama administration has sought to zero funding for the project and to quash the permit application.
The legislation was sent to the House floor in a 26-20 vote, with opposition from all Democrats on the committee and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona. The measure, the fifth of 12 spending bills approved by the panel, is expected to be put before the Republican-controlled House after the July 4 holiday.
In May, the full chamber approved a fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill that would allow the full funding request for the nuclear agency.
Both House bills would ultimately have to be meshed with the Senate defense authorization and appropriations legislation before going to President Obama for signing or veto.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee he was concerned by the House panel's plans to cut funding intended to upgrade the nation's nuclear weapons infrastructure, Reuters reported.
The White House in February requested $7.6 billion for NNSA "weapons activities," which ensure the safety and reliability of the nation's stockpile, for the budget cycle that begins on October 1.
The spending package approved on Wednesday recommends roughly $7.1 billion for that work, according to budget documents. While some budget lines did receive additional funds, that appropriation in total is nearly $500 million less than the administration's request.
It is still a boost of $195 million over the amount lawmakers appropriated for the current fiscal year, Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said in his opening statement.
"Only in Washington could an increase of this magnitude be seen as a cut," the lawmaker remarked.
He charged that the president's 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... slush funds that the administration has historically used to address its needs."
The full committee recommended more than $1.9 billion be spent on directed stockpile work at the agency's network of facilities, including national laboratories in New Mexico and other states, the draft measure shows. That is a $24 million increase over the present fiscal year but nearly $54 million less than the administration sought.
The operations encompass all activities that directly support weapons in the nuclear arsenal, including maintenance and day-to-day care as well as planned refurbishments.
The legislation includes $279 million for the B-61 gravity bomb life-extension program, $55 million above the White House appeal. The committee also approved $255 million for the refurbishment of the W-76 warhead carried on Trident ballistic missiles, a plus-up of $6.7 million from the present budget, but still $2 million below the initial request, according to the panel's document.
The measure would also provide about $46 million to maintain the Navy W-88 warhead carried on submarine launched ballistic missiles and another $30 million to begin a study on renovating that weapon.
The committee fully funded the administration nearly $57 million request for warhead dismantlement but cut production support, which provides the agency's base manufacturing capabilities, by $54 million to $300 million, the measure's text states.
Lawmakers also shaved $25 million from research and development certification and safety, proposing about $166 million for that account in fiscal 2012. That money pays for basic research and development efforts.
"The committee does not support large increases for non-core activities that have not been justified as directly tied to stockpile requirements," the document states.
The panel slashed $190 million from the requested weapons activities account for science, technology, and engineering "campaigns," budget documents show. Those programs consist of multiyear efforts to develop and maintain the capabilities needed to assess the safety and reliability of the nuclear arsenal without underground testing and would receive $1.6 billion in the next budget cycle, $85 million less than fiscal 2011.
Lawmakers took the lion's share of funding, roughly $315 million, from the nuclear agency's "technical base and facilities" program request. The initiative pays for operations, maintenance, and recapitalization of NNSA sites and infrastructure.
That account would get about $2 billion, $174 million above fiscal 2011 levels.
NNSA nonproliferation activities would see a drop from the $2.5 billion sought for the next budget to slightly more than $2 billion under the blueprint approved by appropriators.
Though some accounts saw increases, the bill provides $463 million less than the administration's proposal and marks a $216 million decrease from the appropriated fiscal 2011 level.
Much of the proposed drop-off in funding is connected to the agency's fissile materials disposition activities, including work related to the Plutonium Management and Disposition agreement that requires Russia and the United States to each convert 34 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium into nuclear power plant fuel.
Those efforts would receive $694 million, a decrease of $196 million from the budget request, documents show.
Lawmakers also deducted $120 million from the request for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. The program, which would receive $388 million, or $48 million below fiscal 2011 levels, aims to reduce and remove "high-priority" vulnerable nuclear material, such as highly enriched uranium, from overseas sites. It also converts HEU-fueled research reactors to use proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium fuel.
Another effort that would see less money in fiscal 2012 is the International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation program, which is responsible for enhancing the security of vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear weapons and weapon-usable nuclear material in other countries and improving states' ability to detect the illicit trafficking of those materials. The panel recommended $496 million to the initiative, down $75 million from the president's request.
The committee also sliced $144 million from NNSA nonproliferation research and development and University of California benefit pension plans associated with that work. Overall, the program, which evaluates science and technology associated with nuclear security, would be provided $346 million.
One budget item that gained widespread bipartisan support was the inclusion of $35 million to continue operations at Yucca Mountain. The administration's decision to close the long-planned radioactive materials storage site in Nevada has consistently drawn rebukes from congressional lawmakers.
The project has taken nearly 30 years and cost about $15 billion to date, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
"Over the years the committee... has been at the forefront of criticizing the administration's disdain for sound science and the hard-earned tax dollars of our constituents," Frelinghuysen said. "Now, finally, the rest of Congress and this nation [are] joining the call."
Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., referred to the project as a "$15 billion hole in the ground... that is completely dark now and unused." He derided the Energy Department's move to shutter the site as "foolishness."
"Would you refer to the Yucca Mountain as 'The Hole to Nowhere?'" the Kentucky lawmaker later asked Dicks, in reference to the infamous budget proposal to spend hundreds of millions building a bridge in Alaska that would connect an island of 50 residents to the mainland.
"There's a lot of money in that hole, that's the problem," Dicks replied. He added that to date he has not heard of any proposal to overturn the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 that originally created the legal timetable and procedure for establishing a permanent, underground repository for radioactive waste.
"I respect this administration in many ways, but one thing they did promise us [was] these decisions would be made on a basis of good science -- legally defensible, scientifically credible. I don't think that's the case here," Dicks said.