Nuke-Backing NDAA Passes Senate in Landslide

Graham and Heinrich double down on pit production and Safety Board threatened by Senate bill


The U.S. Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would authorize all the White House’s requested funding for nuclear modernization programs at the Department of Energy and the Pentagon.

The Senate bill would provide a year of bipartisan support for the Donald Trump administration’s nuclear arsenal modernization plans, which are essentially a lightly modified continuation of the 30-year refurbishment the Barack Obama administration started in 2016.

In stark contrast, the House’s version of the NDAA — up for floor debate as soon as the week of July 8 — eyes major changes for the decades-long arsenal refresh by slowing work on nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs at DOE and the Defense Department.

Senators this week filed almost 700 amendments to the 2020 NDAA that just cleared the floor, but lawmakers in the end voted on just three of these during floor debate this week.

However, one of those was effectively a major rewrite of the 2020 NDAA that the Senate Armed Services Committee approved in May. This massive substitute amendment, offered by committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on Monday, contained nearly 100 policy changes negotiated behind closed doors before floor debate started on Tuesday.

These changes to the substitute amendment, which sailed through the Senate 86-8 to become the upper chamber’s 2020 NDAA, are “amendments,” Inhofe said.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Martin Heinrich (D.N.M) scored one of these “amendments,” which would toughen federal law by requiring DOE’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to produce 80 war reserve plutonium pits by 2030.

Federal law as written requires the NNSA to establish a pilot program in 2027 that “demonstrates the capacity” to annually manufacture 80 pits, the fissile core of nuclear warheads. Current law also allows the NNSA and Pentagon to delay the demonstration for up to two years; the Graham-Heinrich amendment would remove that option.

The House’s version of the NDAA would keep the 2027 pilot program requirement, but require the NNSA to demonstrate capacity only for 30 pits annually.

All of the pits the NNSA wants to make by 2030 — the agency plans to start with 10 a year in Los Alamos in 2024 and ramp up to 30 annually there by 2026 — would be for future W87-1 warheads. Those warheads, refurbished versions of the W80-1 warheads used today on Minuteman III ICBMs, would tip the planned Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missiles the Pentagon wants to deploy in 2030. The ICBM fleet would consist of about 400 deployed, silo-based missiles.

Heinrich and Graham respectively represent the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. The NNSA wants to make pits at both sites: 50 a year at Savannah River by 2030 to complement the Los Alamos output.

At Los Alamos, the agency would substantially upgrade existing pit infrastructure; at the Savannah River Site, the stockpile steward would modify a partially completed plutonium disposal plant into a brand new pit production facility.

Heinrich and Graham’s amendment would keep the pressure on the NNSA to fund the dual-state pit strategy. It presents a bipartisan front heading into practically inevitable conference negotiations with the House, where majority Democrats want to kill the two-state strategy and put the proposed pit mission in Graham’s home state on ice.

The NNSA itself has said it will be “a challenge” to hit 80 pits annually by 2030. A series of analyses dating to 2017, including one prepared by the agency itself and one written under contract to NNSA for Parsons Government Services, have concluded the NNSA cannot hit the milestone. Although within the NNSA’s grasp, the technical complexity of the undertaking, coupled with the extreme expense and political difficulty of beginning it, are seen to push the start date for annual production of 80 pits a year beyond the agency’s preferred time horizon.

Yet the NNSA insists that it can get to 80 a year by 2030, if Congress authorizes and approves all funding requests. That starts with the $16.5 billion the agency sought for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The Senate NDAA authorized every penny of that, including the more than $710 million requested for the Plutonium Sustainment account that funds design and construction of the NNSA’s proposed pit plants.  On the other hand, the NDAA headed toward the House floor would provide only about $470 million.

The House NDAA would offer about $15.8 billion for the NNSA: 4% less than sought by the White House but about 4.5% more than the 2019 budget. Authorization bills set policy and spending limits for appropriations bills.

House appropriators have already passed a 2020 spending bill with the same amounts of funding for NNSA pit-production and warhead programs. The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to release any funding bills.

For the NNSA’s W87-1 warhead life-extension program, the Senate NDAA authorizes the roughly $110 million the White House requested. The House’s NDAA would slash that by more than half, allowing just $53 million.

For the final year of a three-year competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman to design the solid-fueled Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent ICBMs themselves, the Senate NDAA would provide $590 million: even more than the $570 million requested. The House NDAA would provide around $490 million.

Among the other “amendments” to the Senate NDAA, one would require the Pentagon and NNSA to tell Congress each year whether there are any delays to the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent or W87-1 programs, and the projected date for finishing those programs. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), whose home state includes the Minuteman III silos and control centers of Minot Air Force Base, wrote that one.

The Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program could cost about $100 billion, the Washington-based, disarmament-advocating Arms Control Association nonprofit reported in 2017. The Air Force said this year the cost could rise.

The NNSA estimates its two-state plutonium pit program will cost around $30 billion over the course of its decades-long life, and that the W87-1 program will cost between $10 billion and $15 billion over the 20 years ending around 2040.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

Aside from nuclear weapons themselves, the Senate NDAA proposes big changes for the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety board, which investigates current and former DOE weapon sites for health and safety issues.

The upper chamber’s NDAA would forbid board members from serving consecutive terms or from remaining on the board after their five-year term expires.

The Senate, citing findings from a 2018 report from the federally funded National Academy of Public Administration, said the five-member Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board appears to provide little value to DOE and suffers from a lack of collegiality among board members.

The House bill, on the other hand, would leave the board’s organizational structure intact, set a minimum number of permanent employs for the small independent agency, and codify that the board should receive “unfettered access” to DOE nuclear sites.

Both bills would authorize about $29.5 million for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. That is in line with its budget request for fiscal 2020.

The Amendments That Weren’t

When the Senate voted Thursday to wrap debate on the Inhofe substitute amendment, they killed in the process nearly 100 amendments to that amendment.

These amendments, brought in vain to the floor, were not accepted during the back-room negotiations that birthed the Heinrich-Graham pit language and the Hoeven ICBM report.

Among the lost amendments:

  • An amendment from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that would have created a “Congressional Commission on Preventing, Countering, and Responding to Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism:” a joint House-Senate body with 12 members, six majority and six minority, from the House and Senate committees on Armed Forces and Homeland Security.
  • An amendment from New York’s Senate delegation — Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) and presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) — to authorize $40 million more than the White House requested for the NNSA’s inertial confinement fusion ignition and high yield program.

The New Yorkers’ proposal would have authorized congressional appropriators to take the funding in equal measure from the NNSA’s maintenance and repair of facilities account, along with the agency’s recapitalization for infrastructure and safety account.

The inertial confinement fusion ignition and high yield program, which includes the University of Rochester’s Laboratory Facility for Laser Energetics  facility in upstate New York, examines the behavior of atomic and subatomic particles in conditions similar to a nuclear detonation.

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