Nuclear spending debates in Congress often pit active weapons programs against the remediation of shuttered Manhattan Project and Cold War production sites, but this year’s proceeding has one defense-nuclear cleanup ally on guard against a provision she says could permanently subordinate the Department of Energy’s legacy environmental programs to the agency’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

In a 10-minute floor speech, just before the full Senate voted to proceed with debate on the chamber’s 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said it was “unbelievable” that Section 3111 of the roughly $740 billion bill would require the secretary of energy to accede to the Pentagon’s opinion each year about whether DoE’s budget request for its semiautonomous nuclear-weapon agency is sufficient.

Under the Senate Armed Services Committee’s NDAA, the joint DoE-Pentagon Nuclear Weapons Council — chaired by the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment — would vet the NNSA’s budget request before it goes to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final approval. 

If the council thinks the budget request is adequate, it must tell the secretary of energy so. If the council thinks the NNSA isn’t seeking enough money for any given weapons program, it can tell the secretary of energy that as well. The secretary would then be required to request that funding for the NNSA.

“I can’t believe that we’re here, with all the things we have to deal with, a COVID crisis, an economic crisis, justice reform, and now we have to worry about people in the dark of night changing control of our Energy budget and turning it over to the DoD and giving them control of our nuclear arsenal,” Cantwell said. “To say nothing of the concerns I have for what they will do to shortchange the Hanford cleanup budget that is a challenge to the nation.”

At $2 billion a year or more, Hanford, the former plutonium production site established during World War II, is the most expensive and challenging environmental cleanup handled by DoE’s Office of Environmental Management.

Cantwell said the Armed Services Committee did not consult the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about its plans to give the Pentagon final sign off on the NNSA’s budget.

“This is unacceptable. I know my colleague Sen. [Joe] Manchin (D-W.Va.) has worked on this and is trying to get a change to this legislation,” she said. “I hope that we are successful in either just pulling it out right now, admitting that it is the wrong approach and has not been discussed with the committee of jurisdiction, or at least having our colleagues having a vote on this.”

Despite her apparent displeasure over the Armed Services Committee’s tack, Cantwell was one of the 90 senators who voted Monday to proceed with debate on the bill, setting the stage for the full Senate to clear the measure before the shortened holiday week is out. The procedural vote was required to move on with debate and amendments.

The House Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, is set to mark up its version of the NDAA starting Wednesday. The lower-chamber’s panel holds an open markup each year, which sometimes lasts the better part of 24 hours. If past is precedent, the full House then would not start floor debate on the NDAA until after the Independence Day holiday.