Important Appropriations Hearing on the National Nuclear Security Administration

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Publication date: 
26 February 2013

“There is nothing more important in our committee’s jurisdiction than your mission,” said House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) at the conclusion of a two-hour hearing on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA.)  This hearing, the first by the subcommittee this year, reaffirmed the subcommittee’s bipartisanship, both in its support of the NNSA and in shared concerns about the aging of the weapons stockpile, the need to modernize the complex, and cost overruns.

Thomas D’Agostino resigned his position last December after serving as NNSA administrator for more than five years.  Neile Miller is now the Acting Administrator and Acting Undersecretary for Nuclear Security.  She appeared with NNSA Deputy Administrator Donald Cook and NNSA Deputy Administrator Colonel James Dawkins. 

This annual hearing was atypical as there was no budget request for the subcommittee to review.  “This puts us in a difficult position” said Frelinghuysen, adding that the FY 2014 request may be delayed by a month or more.  NNSA is now operating under a continuing resolution, and is the only account under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction receiving more than flat funding.  As expected, there was considerable discussion about the effect that mandatory sequestration of funding would have on NNSA’s programs.

The lack of an FY 2014 budget request did not substantially alter the concerns of subcommittee members.  A long-running frustration of the subcommittee is NNSA’s history of cost overruns, and this was again discussed – at length - at the February 14 hearing.  The witnesses offered assurances that the agency is reforming its construction management practices, focusing on the need for better engineering design to avoid what Ranking Minority Member Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) called “repeated and spectacular cost increases that seem to plague the NNSA.”  Kaptur is the new ranking member, replacing Peter Visclosky (D-IN) who still sits on the subcommittee.  Visclosky was particularly displeased with NNSA’s performance in this area, saying with some emotion that reform efforts have been “an abject failure.” 

Related to this topic was the proposed five-year deferral of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility (CMRR) at Los Alamos National Laboratory.  NNSA sought this delay in its FY 2013 request submitted a year ago after consultation with the Department of Defense.  Past, current and projected budget constraints played a role in this decision as did concerns about cost growth and more pressing modernization needs, such as a life extension program for a key nuclear weapon.

Also discussed was the administration’s proposal to reduce the number of weapons in the nation’s nuclear stockpile below those called for in the New START Treaty.  Frelinghuysen disagrees with this proposal, asking for Miller’s comments.  “We can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need,” she said, assuring the subcommittee that further reductions would not reduce the nation’s security.  Cook explained that there would be “not much” cost savings because of sizeable fixed costs (primarily the workforce), but predicted that it would allow for greater modernization of the stockpile and the weapons complex. 

A major theme of this and previous NNSA hearings was the pressing need for modernization.  Cook testified that the majority of the B-61thermonuclear weapon’s components are at least thirty years old.  The stockpile is the smallest it has been since 1957.  “We have no choice but to modernize the stockpile” Cook said.  Given budget constraints, NNSA decided to allocate funding for the B-61 life extension program and a Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex, deferring the CMRR until 2028. 

Toward the end of the hearing, Frelinghuysen asked a series of questions about the National Ignition Facility, and why ignition has not been achieved.  Cook discussed problems in achieving sufficient compression and velocity, assuring the chairman the facility was “confidently and capably engineered,” with laser performance exceeding expectations.   Important stockpile stewardship work in weapons design and understanding has been done, Cook said, while conceding, “I’m disappointed that we haven’t achieved ignition.” 

The hearing concluded with Frelinghuysen offering heart-felt words of appreciation for NNSA and its employees, and his recognition of the complexity of the agency’s programs.  The difficulties confronting the Obama Administration, NNSA and House appropriators are not disagreements about what the agency does, but how to find the money needed to pay for it all.