“I’m encouraged based upon where we were two or three years ago in terms of the big projects” said Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) as he wrapped up a hearing on the FY 2016 request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Alexander’s subcommittee and the counterpart House subcommittee held hearings on the overall NNSA request on March 4 and 11.
The Obama Administration is seeking an increase of $1,166.4 million or 10.2 percent over this year’s budget of $11,399.0 million to $12,565.4 million for FY 2016. In his opening statement to both subcommittees, NNSA Administrator Frank Klotz described the requested budget as “extraordinarily important” in supporting his agency’s missions. NNSA is a semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy, accounting for more than 40 percent of DOE’s overall budget.
Alexander and his House counterpart, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), and their colleagues face difficult choices as they look ahead to their funding bills. Both commented that the President’s overall request for defense activities, including NNSA, is $38 billion over legislatively-mandated budget caps. The FY 2016 cap is essentially flat, making NNSA’s $1.2 billion requested increase problematic. Simpson said there was a “distinct possibility” that these caps would be held in place.
The possibility that another round of sequestration cuts might be imposed if the caps were violated was also discussed. Klotz warned both subcommittees that such cuts would result in “devastating impacts” to his agency, forcing the completion of key programs further out into the future, resulting in higher costs, and perhaps cancellations.
Both hearings lasted about ninety minutes. Common themes at each were deep appreciation and respect for NNSA’s missions, and frustration with previous cost and schedule overruns. Klotz was asked pointed questions at each hearing about changes in the agency’s project management of life extension programs for nuclear warheads and the construction of new facilities to replace hazardous and obsolete buildings.
Questions at the House hearing tended toward the warhead life extension programs and NNSA’s organization, while senators focused somewhat more on facility construction. Of particular concern was the status of the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge TN. Site preparation work is being done to replace the aging Building 9215 by 2025. Rapidly escalating costs have caused NNSA to rethink the configuration of the replacement structure.
In addition to the Uranium Processing Facility, NNSA is also working on a Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabricating Facility at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site for the conversion of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium into reactor fuel and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Construction of all three facilities could cost $20 billion.
Design work continues on all three projects. Alexander and subcommittee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have called for NNSA to complete 90 percent of all design work before construction starts to keep costs under control. Feinstein and Alexander’s thinking are parallel, the California Democrat said, adding that with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz “we’re beginning to make some progress.”
There are concerns. Feinstein faulted NNSA’s Weapons Activities Account for cutting science and engineering while increasing computing and advanced manufacturing funding in the FY 2016 request. She feels nonproliferation program are on “a downward slope” from its 2012 level, and sought clarification about the number of nuclear weapons that are kept in the stockpile as a hedge. Alexander asked a series of questions about the storage of used naval reactor fuel in Idaho and its eventual disposition at a site elsewhere in the United States.
In another round of questions Feinstein spoke about current experiments at the National Ignition Facility. Less than half of these experiments involve ignition; the remaining are for other aspects of stockpile stewardship. Feinstein spoke of conversations she had at NIF about new research strategies to better understand how to achieve ignition since previous efforts had failed, and was assured that these efforts would continue.
Other issues and programs were discussed at both hearings. House and Senate appropriators seemed generally satisfied with the progress that NNSA is making, while being mindful of the difficulties they face in providing the agency with a $1.2 billion increase in FY 2016 without a corresponding increase in the allocations for their own subcommittees.