WASHINGTON -- Budget constraints might make it difficult to grant the Obama administration's request to increase spending for operations to ensure the safety and performance of the nation's nuclear arsenal, leaders of a key congressional panel indicated yesterday (see GSN, March 1).
The White House blueprint for the next federal budget calls for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department, to receive a 5 percent funding hike to $11.8 billion (see GSN, Feb. 15).
Of that amount, $7.6 billion would go in fiscal 2012 toward the agency's "weapons activities," which cover all efforts that directly support the warheads in the nuclear stockpile, including refurbishment. That represents an 8.9 percent, or $621 million, boost for those programs from the enacted fiscal 2010 request.
However, "in the fiscal environment that we are now facing, that request is unlikely to be met," House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said in his opening statement during a hearing on the agency's weapons operations.
"New resources will not be available unless they come from existing accounts," the GOP lawmaker added.
Ranking subcommittee Democrat Ed Pastor (Ariz.) noted that the appeal marks the second consecutive year the nuclear agency has been picked for a budget plus-up.
"The NNSA must provide this subcommittee detailed information on how you plan to execute this expanded program," he said.
Fiscal 2012 begins on October 1 of this year.
Congress has not passed a final spending plan for the current budget year, and Republicans are pressing for significant spending rollbacks. A continuing resolution passed by the House yesterday reversed a previous proposal that would have cut $1.1 billion in NNSA funding for the fiscal cycle that ends on September 30.
The latest stopgap measure is due to last only two weeks, to March 18. The Senate is expected to take up the bill this morning.
Thomas D'Agostino, NNSA administrator, told the panel yesterday he is aware of the "acute financial challenges" facing the country at the moment. He described the spending plan as a down payment on the administration's commitment to invest $85 billion over the next decade to build new nuclear research facilities and service aging warheads.
The coming budget cycles represents a "pivotal set of years for the enterprise. If we miss this opportunity, I believe the ability to recover is going to be difficult," the NNSA chief warned.
After briefly discussing fiscal restrictions at the start of the hearing, subcommittee members and nuclear complex officials largely focused on the details of the latest spending request, including warhead dismantlement and efforts to prolong the service lifetime of particular weapons. The programs would respectively receive nearly $57 million and $481 million in next budget cycle, documents show.
The nuclear agency requested slightly more than $257 million for fiscal 2012 to support the ongoing refurbishment of the W-76 warhead, which is deployed on the Navy's Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile. That is an $8 million bump from the fiscal 2011 request.
Refurbishment generally involves overhauling or replacing corroded metal parts and other aging weapons components. Work on the W-76 takes place at the Pantex Plant in Texas and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee and is likely to last until 2017, Don Cook, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, said during the hearing.
The agency also proposed more than $223 million to begin engineering and design for the overhaul of the B-61 gravity bomb. Those operations would be carried out at the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories in New Mexico, starting in 2017, D'Agostino told lawmakers.
D'Agostino said agency officials have begun to focus on refurbishment plans for the W-78 warhead used on Air Force Minuteman 3 ICBMs and the Navy W-88 warhead carried on submarine launched ballistic missiles. Both systems will need "some attention" over the next decade, he added; work would begin in 2021 at the Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories.
In fiscal 2011 the Obama administration requested that Congress appropriate $26 million to study what it would take to launch a joint program to refurbish the two warheads (see GSN, Sept 14, 2010). Although both were designed for use on ballistic missiles, they were meant to fly on different delivery vehicles and do not share a common command and control system.
D'Agostino and other officials also had to explain why the agency's Weapons Dismantlement and Disposition budget would shrink from slightly more than $96 million in fiscal 2010 to less than $57 million in the upcoming budget year.
The program is intended to eliminate retired weapons and their components and to reduce the security and maintenance burden of legacy warheads and bombs. The exact number of warheads the agency intends to take apart in the next budget year is classified.
The 2010 figure represented a "one time increase" that accelerated safety studies for the W-84 warhead and allowed the agency to purchase special tools to disassemble the B-53 warhead, according to D'Agostino. The B-53 was originally built during the 1950s and carried by the B-52 bomber. The W-84 was formerly used on ground-launched cruise missiles.
It takes "many weeks to take apart just one" weapon from the B-53 stockpile, he told the panel.
Pastor was particularly curious why budget documents show that after the proposed decrease for fiscal 2012, "out year funding" for the dismantlement efforts hover between $43 million and $56 million for the ensuing four budget cycles.
That baseline allows the agency to carry out a classified plan for the anticipated number of weapon dismantlements over the next 10 years, according to D'Agostino.
He said the agency could have hired more engineers to work on disassembly projects, but asserted that such a move would have created an employment "bubble" and slowed dismantlement operations for secondary systems, the second stage of thermonuclear weapons, at Y-12.
The NNSA head predicted the agency would complete dismantlement of existing retired weapons before the 2022 date set in the plan. Officials are wary of deciding to revise that strategy, preferring to continue "under promising and over delivering," he told lawmakers.
D'Agostino and other nuclear complex officials are scheduled to appear before the subcommittee again today to discuss the proposed $2.5. billion budget in fiscal 2012 for the agency's nonproliferation activities.
This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.