The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would be authorized to spend $375 million more than requested on a plutonium pit factory at the Savannah River Site in fiscal year 2023, if a bill under debate in the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday becomes law.

This development, among others, during the House Armed Services Committee’s day-long public debate of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) bucked the Biden administration’s spending proposal for the NNSA on a bi-partisan basis. The committee was still debating the bill Wednesday afternoon. NDAA debates can last almost a full 24 hours.

The boost for the pit program, contingent on separate appropriations bills that still have to pass muster in a Democratically controlled Congress, was part of a very broad amendment that increased the top line of the committee’s proposed NDAA by $37 million. Even before the amendment, the committee’s NDAA had proposed the requested level of funding for the Savannah River Processing Facility, to be built from the partially completed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chair of the committee, voted against the top-line increase, but 14 of his Democratic colleagues voted for it, resulting in a easy 42-17 victory that boosted allowable funding for the larger of the NNSA’s two planned plutonium pit factories well above the Biden administration’s request.

The Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility would be authorized to spend about $1.1 billion under the committee’s NDAA, which the full House still will have to debate and pass. Before the top-line boost, part of an amendment from Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), the South Carolina pit plant was in line for an authorization of just over $758 million. NNSA is also building a smaller pit plant at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The agency cannot produce 80 pits annually by 2030, as the military requires, due to challenges at the planned Savannah River plant, discovered when the agency was formalizing its design in 2021. 

Senior NNSA and Pentagon officials repeatedly said, in hearings this spring, that spending more money on the plants in fiscal year 2023 would not allow the agency to cast the required number of pits by the required date. 

Overall, Golden’s amendment boosts the NNSA authorization to about $22.1 billion, more than $685 million above the request and about even with the authorization the Senate Armed Services Committee approved last week in its own NDAA. The Senate committee also included funding for the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, plus the B83 gravity bomb that the Biden administration wants to retire.