A 2021 spending bill passed on Monday on a party line vote by the House Appropriations Committee would prohibit development of a proposed new nuclear warhead for the Navy while upping investments in infrastructure to produce new plutonium triggers — but not by as much as the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) wants.
That is according to a detailed bill report for the 2021 energy and water development legislation passed last week by the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee.
The report specifies that the semiautonomous Department of Energy nuclear-weapon agency should not get any of the $53 million it sought for the proposed W93 submarine launched ballistic missile warhead. It
should also focus near-term efforts to produce plutonium pits at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the document says — essentially the same stance majority House Democrats took last year.
The committee approved the bill 30-21 on a party line vote, with members from each party not voting. The full House had not scheduled floor debate at deadline. The committee still has to mark up a broad slate of 2021 spending bills this week, and Democratic leaders likely will not schedule floor debate on any of them until it finishes that work.
Overall, the bill provides about $18 billion for the NNSA: more than $1 billion above the 2020 budget of some $16.7 billion, but nearly $2 billion less than the White House request of almost $20 billion. The full House Appropriations Committee is set to mark up the bill at 1 p.m. Eastern time on July 13.
The bill report released Sunday specifies that the NNSA should receive just over $1 billion for its new Primary Capability Modernization account: the category that funds design and construction of plutonium-pit factories at Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. That’s about $600 million below the request, but more than $290 million above the 2020 appropriation.
Relative to the 2020 appropriations, the energy and water subcommittee taps the brakes on spending for the planned Savannah River pit plant while plowing more money into the expansion of Los Alamos’ Plutonium Facility. The bill would provide $650 million for Los Alamos Plutonium Modernization: over double the 2020 appropriation, but almost 20% below the request. Year-to-year spending on Savannah River Plutonium Modernization, on the other hand, would fall some 25% to about $305 million, if the bill becomes law. That’s roughly 30% less funding than requested.
The NNSA wants to convert Savannah River’s canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Facility into a new pit plant. Together, the facilities are supposed to produce at least 80 pits a year by 2030, though the NNSA has admitted it will be a challenge to make the deadline. The plants will initially make the plutonium cores for planned W87-1 warheads, which are slated to tip the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missiles the Air Force wants to deploy starting in 2030 or so. Some of these missiles could go into the ground using the W87-0 warheads from the Minuteman III missiles they will replace.
Most of the $1.7 billion of requested funding that the House Appropriations panel refused to grant the NNSA for fiscal 2021 was for upgrading and building nuclear weapons infrastructure, such as the pit plants. The difference between the agency’s ask for infrastructure and operations funding and the subcommittee’s recommendation was about $1 billion.
On the other hand, essentially all ongoing and planned weapons modernization programs in the Stockpile Major Modernization account would get essentially the requested funding of $2.6 billion, according to the bill report. That is some $500 million more than the 2020 appropriation. The W93 is the only major modernization program the subcommittee was unwilling to fund. The proposed warhead would be a new warhead design based on an explosive package that could be certified without a yield test, the NNSA has said.
The Senate Appropriations Committee had not unveiled its preferred NNSA budget as of July 13.
Turf Battle Over Nuclear Budget Continues
Aside from checking the pace of the NNSA’s plutonium pit program, the House Committee’s bill also would prohibit funding for yield-producing nuclear tests, ban work on the proposed W93 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead in fiscal 2021, and prohibit the NNSA from collaborating with the joint DoE-Pentagon Nuclear Weapons Council on the civilian agency’s annual budget request.
The provision about the interagency budget dialog continued a debate started in June by the Senate Armed Services Committee about how much more influence the Pentagon should have over the NNSA’s annual budget. In its National Defense Authorization Act, the upper chamber’s Armed Services Committee wanted to give the Pentagon conditional veto power over the NNSA’s budget request. However, Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Joe Manchin (D-WVa.) struck that language from the bill with an amendment adopted before the chamber’s two-week July 4 recess.
In Monday’s markup, Pentagon-NNSA cooperation was one of the only nuclear weapons issues to which any influential lawmaker devoted substantial speaking time.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the chair of the Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, said the spending bill’s decision to ban NNSA from using 2021 funding to collaborate with the Nuclear Weapons Council could violate current law that directs the council “to advise both the departments on their respective budgetary needs.”
“I support the current structure as an important component of maintaining civilian control over our nuclear weapons program,” Simpson said during the markup. “But as drafted, [the bill] likely would upend current law … I’m hopeful that as we move forward, if we find it necessary to have language at all, that we can work together to address these unintended consequences.”