Last week the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing on the FY 2012 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration. Following an earlier House hearing senators focused their questions on securing nuclear materials, the manufacture of plutonium pits, and the construction of multi-billion dollar facilities.
This was a low-key hearing that was attended by Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino and his staff. In opening comments, Feinstein referred to the $1.1 billion or 10.2 percent increase that NNSA has requested for FY 2012 and described the agency as “an endangered species because they’re probably the only one . . . that’s going to get this kind of raise.” If approved, NNSA’s budget will increase by approximately $2 billion in two years to $11.8 billion. As was true at the House hearing, there were no obvious policy differences between Feinstein and Alexander. At both hearings, D’Agostino was held in high regard, with Feinstein saying “he has always been an absolute straight shooter, and I really, really prize that.”
One of the main topics of conversation at this hearing was NNSA’s management of large construction projects. Feinstein and Alexander expressed concern about the reliability of NNSA’s cost and schedule estimates for new multi-billion dollar facilities at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Savannah River since cost estimates are now more than three times the original figures. Alexander faulted the subcommittee for not doing more oversight of what he calculated was about $20 billion of major NNSA projects. Money saved could go to national laboratories, energy research, or environmental cleanup, he stated. Alexander also said that the agency should be funded through the Defense Appropriations bill since most of its responsibilities are in support of the military.
Feinstein’s first question was why the Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia work force was larger in 2009 than it was at the height of the Cold War, when the United States had three times as many nuclear weapons. D’Agostino replied the character of the laboratories’ work has changed, explaining that because underground testing is not being conducted “we’re relying on science a lot more,” citing the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydro Test Facility, the National Ignition Facility, and the Z machine. In addition, the laboratories are doing work for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Energy, and the Director of National Intelligence, as well as in other areas such as last year’s BP oil spill.
The consolidation of domestic and foreign nuclear materials was the focus of Feinstein’s second set of questions. NNSA has seven main sites, and is working to move material out of Lawrence Livermore National Lab to improve safety and reduce costs. NNSA is midway through a four-year effort to secure nuclear materials in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Mexico, and Belarus.
Alexander focused on what NNSA is doing to better manage its construction projects, noting how there is a “massive range” for the cost of the Chemistry and Metallurgical Replacement Project at Los Alamos, and a similar price range for Uranium Processing Facility at Oak Ridge. When Alexander asked what Congress could do help build these facilities at the least possible cost, D’Agostino replied that regular interactions with Members and staff to discuss progress and plans would help to bring the projects in on time and within budget. D’Agostino also stressed the importance of project management policies, independent peer review, and “the right people to bear on the problem.” NNSA has completed approximately one-half of the full engineering design work for the Los Alamos and Oak Ridge projects.
When Feinstein resumed her questioning, she prefaced her remarks by declaring “I am not for new nuclear weapons. I will do everything I can to prevent the development of a new nuclear weapon. I want to see them gone all over the world. And I will support any program to get that done.” She asked D’Agostino about a weapons life extension program that would involve the manufacture of new plutonium pits, and asked why that is necessary since a JASON study found that pits have a lifetime of one hundred years or more. D’Agostino and other NNSA officials discussed the need to maintain expertise in this area and the decomposition of high explosives. D’Agostino told Feinstein that the design would not be a new pit, but a pit that might permit a reduction in the overall number of nuclear warheads. Feinstein and D’Agostino went back-and-forth on how many new pits would be manufactured and what it mean to the reduction of warheads. D’Agostino agreed to provide this information in a separate meeting.
The hearing concluded with a series of questions by Alexander about consolidating the management contracts for Y-12 and Pantex, which D’Agostino said could save many hundreds of millions of dollars over the next ten years. A Government Accountability Office report is due in July, and Alexander recommended NNSA wait to see the results of this study. Alexander also asked about the safety of the mixed oxide fuel for civilian reactors. Finally, Alexander asked if the lessons learned from the naval reactor program could be applied in the construction of new nuclear power plants.
The hearing ended with Feinstein thanking D’Agostino and the other NNSA officials for their testimony. Although made in her opening comments, a remark by Feinstein serves as a good “take away” message from this hearing: “NNSA must do a better job explaining how these multibillion dollar facilities and major investments in experimental facilities, such as the National Ignition Facility, will help us draw down the stockpile further.”
Note that selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.