The U.S. Senate’s recently passed version of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act calls for nine reports or briefings on Department of Energy nuclear weapon programs. Sister publication Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor has listed each of them below, in the order in which they appear in the bill.
None of these reports are required yet. Even after the House passes its version of the 2020 NDAA — potentially next week — leaders of each service’s Armed Services Committee will still have to hash out a compromise bill.
The following annotated list begins with the reports and briefings ordered by the bill itself. These deliverables would be required by law, should the Senate’s language survive the all-but-inevitable conference negotiations.
Making Tritium With Uranium From The United Kingdom
By Feb. 15, 2020, the secretary of energy must report to Congress defense committees about whether the United States is allowed to produce tritium using low-enriched uranium it obtains from the United Kingdom under the 1958 bilateral Mutual Defense Agreement.
To produce tritium for nuclear weapons, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) needs uranium that is not restricted to peaceful uses. Spot-market low-enriched uranium usually carries such restrictions, as does low-enriched uranium produced on foreign-owned enrichment cascades.
The U.S. State Department has already said the U.S. could procure unobligated uranium for tritium production under the 1958 agreement with the U.K.
In the meantime, the NNSA plans to downblend some 20 metric tons of its own highly enriched uranium to create low-enriched fuel that can produce tritium in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 1. The agency in 2018 gave BWX Technologies [BWXT] a seven-year, $500 million contract to downblend the uranium.
Continued Suspension of GAO Review of NNSA Budget Requests
Not a report, so much as a continued lack of one.
The Senate NDAA would continue to suspend through 2023 an annual review by the Government Accountability Office of whether the White House’s annual budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration provides “for funding of the nuclear security enterprise at a level that is sufficient for the modernization and refurbishment of the nuclear security enterprise.”
Reduced Scrutiny of Secret Procurements
The Senate NDAA would allow the NNSA to secretly procure sensitive nuclear-weapon components without triggering an automatic Government Accountability Office review.
Federal law gives the semiautonomous Energy Department agency authority to conduct secret, noncompetitive procurements of certain systems — nuclear-weapon components, items associated with production of such components, and even items used to surveil the stockpile or design nonproliferation technology — to protect the components from sabotage somewhere along the supply chain.
If the Senate’s NDAA became law, Congress would still get briefings about NNSA decisions to conduct secret procurements, but the Government Accountability Office would no longer review each individual use of this authority. That review includes a determination of whether the NNSA has the institutional competence to exercise the authority properly; secret procurements are supposed to be a last resort when the agency cannot secure its supply chain any other way, according to the law.
The NNSA’s secret procurement authority will expire on June 30, 2023, unless extended by Congress.
National Academies Assessment of High-density Physics Achievements
A little less than two years after the 2020 NDAA becomes law, the National Academies would have to report to Congress on “recent advances and the current status of research in the field of high energy density physics.”
The report would cover research that leverages laser experiments at: the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester in New York; and Pulsed Power Program at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.
High energy density physics can simulate some of the initial effects of a nuclear detonation, helping NNSA to ensure its stockpile of plutonium is war-ready without forcing the agency to perform nuclear-explosive tests.
What is the nuke purpose of this work?
The National Academies report would have to assess fabrication of the targets that are shot by the lasers at these facilities, workforce training, and foreign high-density energy research. The Senate NDAA wants the National Academies report to touch on both civilian and defense research.
The NNSA would have 90 days after the 2020 NDAA passes to charter the study with the congressionally created National Academies. The report would be due 18 months after charter.
Reports, Briefings, Or Analyses Required by Bill Report Language
A bill report explains in detail what lawmakers think their legislation tells an agency to do. Usually, bill reports contain additional directives not present in the legal text of the measure. Many of those directives, which would not carry the force of law, call on agencies or the Government Accountability Office to assess and report on federal programs.
Bill report language is not mandatory per se, though agencies that flout report directives eventually must explain their decision to the very lawmakers who wrote the report (and who may remember the flouting when they write the agency’s next authorization or appropriations bill).
What If NNSA Doesn’t Make 80 Pits A Year By 2030?
By Dec. 19, 2019, the chair of the Nuclear Weapons Council — the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment — would have to brief the House and Senate Armed Services committees on the military consequences of an NNSA failure to produce 80 fissile nuclear-weapon cores called plutonium pits by 2030.
In this briefing, the Nuclear Weapons Council chair would also have to present “possible options to mitigate these risks,” according to the Senate NDAA.
The NNSA is in the midst of a protracted effort to resume something like industrial-scale manufacturing of plutonium pits, which the government has not made in significant numbers since the juggernaut Rocky Flats plant in Colorado ceased pit production in 1989 after the FBI raided the facility to investigate environmental crimes.
The NNSA’s planned two-state pit complex would not have anything like the capacity of Rocky Flats, which produced 1,000 per year. The new complex would begin production of war-ready pits at a rate of 10 annually at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico starting in 2024.
All of these pits would initially be for W87-1-style warheads, which are planned for use on the future Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. The Pentagon wants to deploy the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles beginning in 2030 to replace some 400 1970s-vintage Minuteman III missiles.
Government Accountability Office Report on NNSA Lithium Production
The Government Accountability Office would have until July 1, 2020, to brief the House and Senate Armed Services committees on the NNSA’s progress building the next-generation Lithium Processing Facility, which the agency expects to come online at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in 2027.
Congress’ investigative arm would submit a full report sometime after the briefing, at a time to be decided during the briefing, according to the bill report accompanying the Senate’s 2020 NDAA.
Lithium, which is not radioactive, helps boost the explosive power of nuclear weapons. Formerly known as the Lithium Production Capability, the Lithium Processing Facility will take over work currently done in Y-12’s World War II-vintage Building 9204-2.
The Senate NDAA ordered the lithium assessment because the chamber’s Armed Services Committee “is concerned that the NNSA intends to rely on the current aging facilities through the next decade for ongoing [weapons life extension programs] and modernization programs,” according to the bill report.
Can Recommended DoD Acquisition Reforms Work at DoE?
In Section 809 of the 2016 NDAA, Congress ordered the secretary of defense to create an advisory panel on streamlining and codifying Pentagon acquisition regulations.
Senators liked the 809 Panel’s behemoth, 2,300-plus-page report so much that, in their 2020 NDAA, they ordered the Government Accountability Office to examine whether the NNSA could benefit from some of the panel’s recommendations.
Lawmakers ordered a staggered series of briefings, to be followed by longer reports, on three topics: whether DoE employs enough capable acquisitions professionals; whether the agency should implement a so-called “portfolio-based” management approach, which centralizes decision-making for multiple agency programs rather than siloing it in individual program offices; and whether DoE can improve the way it obtains audit and non-audit services required by law.
The Government Accountability Office would have to brief Congress on these topics, respectively, by March 1, 2020, June 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2020.
What is DoE Order 140.1 Doing to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board?
The Energy Department in 2018 issued Order 140.1, which tightens restrictions on what agency employees and contractors are allowed to say to the independent federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB): the government’s health-and-safety inspector for defense nuclear sites.
The Government Accountability Office would have to brief Congress by March 15, 2020 — with a report to follow at a date to be determined — on “how DoE’s implementation of the order has affected the Board’s ability to meets its statutory responsibilities” to protect the public from existing and potential hazards at defense-nuclear sites.
What Will Plutonium Science Cost Over The Next Five Years?
The 2020 Senate NDAA would order the NNSA administrator to consult with the director of DoE’s Office of Science to deliver a report to Congress by March 31, 2020, that includes a summary of the agency’s plutonium science and metallurgy research.
The report would also have to include “a five-year funding profile for plutonium science and metallurgy, including applicable facilities and capital equipment.”