Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and his colleagues on the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee exhibited little enthusiasm for the FY 2010 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration. “It’s hard to imagine that so little is truly in need of change over the coming year” said Dorgan in his opening remarks at the June 2 hearing.
Senators on this subcommittee seemed considerably less enthusiastic about the basically flat budget request than did their House counterparts. While House subcommittee chairman Peter Visclosky (D-IN) commended the Administration for a “fiscally responsible and prudent strategy” while awaiting the results of the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review, Senator Dorgan said he was “not sure this is justification enough” to delay decisions about facilities or changes in the agency’s requested budget. “The fact is NNSA is going to have a very active future” said Dorgan, citing its responsibilities for stockpile stewardship, life extension, warhead dismantlement, nonproliferation and securing vulnerable supplies of global nuclear materials. While acknowledging this is a transition year, he predicted a flat FY 2010 budget would make it difficult for NNSA to fulfill all of its missions, and would put additional pressures on weapons instrumentation and infrastructure that have science and nonproliferation applications.
Dorgan and the subcommittee’s Ranking Republican Member Robert Bennett (R-UT) were mindful of the Office of Management and Budget’s role in the preparation of the request. Bennett expressed his continuing support for the pure science conducted in NNSA’s labs, and stated he found it “very disturbing” that the request would, he said, erode support for science and nonproliferation R&D. Dorgan picked up on this same point, saying he was “very worried about losing the strength of our scientists and these labs.”
Dorgan also expressed his opposition to OMB interest in studying whether NNSA laboratories should be moved to the Department of Defense. He called it a “bad idea,” a sentiment shared by Bennett and other key senators who wrote to OMB in mid March to express their “firm opposition” to the proposal. NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino seemed to share this view. Dorgan and D’Agostino also shared the same sentiment about the Administration’s proposal to cancel the refurbishment of the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, with D’Agostino telling the chairman that the facility was important and “absolutely” needed. A copy of this OMB proposal can be viewed on pdf page 35 at this site.
D’Agostino, in response to Dorgan, said he was trying to “stop the bleeding” in NNSA’s science activities by reallocating funding, and would continue to seek to do so in the future. D’Agostino reminded the senators that “this is a one year look” and predicted that after the review more changes would be requested. D’Agostino also said to look for a “fairly different” request in the future for non-proliferation activities, including research and verification.
Bennett announced his intention to amend the legislation establishing the NNSA to include a new official to oversee NNSA’s scientific program. This official would report directly to the administrator. Bennet asked D’Agostino for his opinion; D’Agostino responded that it “is a good idea . . . I’m very favorably disposed.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked about the direction of future arms treaties, and spoke of press accounts suggesting a limit of 1,500 operational warheads on each side. D’Agostino replied that President Obama wants to reduce the number of warheads from existing levels, and told the senator “we haven’t closed on the details,” adding that they were in the “discussion phase of examining the future.” Feinstein also questioned the benefits of privatizing the weapons laboratories, asking about the number of employment positions that have been eliminated. D’Agostino replied that “it’s in the thousands.” Feinstein described a visit to the Los Alamos National Laboratory and how she was struck by the few people she saw, saying she was “very worried about” privatization. D’Agostino spoke of improvements in security, management, and of the new focus for the lab, adding “I recognize there are downsides.” At this point Dorgan joined the exchange, saying that costs keep increasing, and mentioning a conversation he had with a lab director who was worried about the scientists his facility was losing. Dorgan wants an analysis done on the impacts of privatization.
Feinstein also praised the National Ignition Facility which she visited during its recent opening ceremony. “The place is amazing,” she told her colleagues, lauding its potential for nuclear research. Feinstein and D’Agostino discussed the possibility of building a fusion-fission reactor at NIF to produce electricity and to reduce the amount of nuclear waste.
The hearing drew to a close so the senators could vote on a legislative motion. As they left, Dorgan told D’Agostino that “we are going to rely on your agency in a very significant way.”