The House Appropriations Committee last Friday approved a 2022 civilian nuclear weapons budget that for now holds the line on modernizing the Department of Energy’s nuclear-weapons production complex, including proposed plutonium pit factories, but withholds funding for a couple smaller nuclear weapons programs.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) budget the House Appropriations Committee approved Friday includes the requested $1.8 billion for building plutonium pit production factories at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in New Mexico. That’s about $350 million more than the 2021 appropriation of just over $1.35 billion.
On a party-line 33 to 24 vote following hours of debate on amendments, none of which involved nuclear weapons spending, the committee sent a bill with a roughly $20 billion budget for DOE’s NNSA to the House floor. That’s about flat, compared with the 2021 appropriation and even with the Biden Administration’s first budget request.
At deadline Friday, the full House had not scheduled a vote on the Energy and Water Appropriations Act that contains the NNSA budget. Politico reported last week that House lawmakers want to vote on seven of their 12 annual appropriations bills before skipping town to visit with constituents during the traditional August recess. At deadline, the Senate had not scheduled markups for its versions of the 12 spending bills.
The NNSA recently acknowledged that while the planned pit plant at Los Alamos should be ready to produce war-usable nuclear-weapon cores by fiscal year 2024, and ramp up to 30 annually by 2026, the pit factory proposed for the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., will not be able to produce the 50 pits annually for which it is responsible until 2032 or 2035 — five years later than federal law requires, in the worst-case scenario.
The delay prompted some table-pounding from appropriators in the detailed bill report accompanying the spending bill passed Friday. In the report, lawmakers demanded that the NNSA deliver to Congress, within 15 days of their bill becoming law, a pair of overdue reports about the agency’s pit plans: an integrated master schedule for the pit complex, and a contingency plan for meeting military pit requirements if the NNSA’s current two-state pit strategy does not pan out.
Congress mandated both reports in the NNSA’s 2021 budget bill, which became law in December. The agency had not delivered either by the time House appropriators put their bill report together.
Meanwhile, the committee’s proposed NNSA spending bill directs the agency not to pursue a W80-4 warhead variant for a proposed low-yield, nuclear-tipped Sea Launched Cruise Missile. The bill also would deny the requested funding for a service life extension for the B83 megaton-capable gravity bomb, which the previous Trump administration in 2018 decided to keep on life support past its planned retirement.
“The Committee considers these proposed investments premature pending the nuclear posture review,” reads the bill report. The Biden administration plans to publish its Nuclear Posture review in January or so, nominally in time to incorporate any changes the Democratic administration wants to make to the arsenal in its fiscal year 2023 budget request.
The committee bill also provides $53 million, flat year-over-year, for the W93 submarine launched ballistic missile warhead. The administration asked for a $19 million increase. The weapon will be the first addition to the arsenal since the end of the Cold War that is not a refurbishment of an already-deployed warhead or bomb. The W93 physics package was tested at yield before the current moratorium on yield-producing tests took effect in 1992, NNSA has said.
A version of this story first appeared in Defense Daily affiliate publication Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor.