The roughly $20 billion budget the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration requested on Monday is “the right number” to reverse a decade of “neglect” in the U.S. nuclear-weapons enterprise, the Secretary of Energy told reporters Monday.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) budget would come at the expense of the naval shipbuilding budget and, to a lesser extent, DoE-funded cleanup of shuttered Cold War nuclear weapons production sites.
“We feel very strongly about that word, neglect,” Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said in a conference call with the media, in which senior DoE leaders briefed the media about the White House’s 2021 federal budget request. “Congress is very supportive, we think, of this number,” [and] we’re going to work closely with them to get that number as close to $19.8 [billion] as we possibly can.”
Brouillette spoke to reporters from Vienna alongside NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty. The two are attending the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Nuclear Conference on Nuclear Security, making Monday’s budget brief-in for the media one of their first public appearances together since Gordon-Hagerty — with the help of some of President Donald Trump’s key political allies in Congress — reportedly prevailed upon the President to seek $20 billion for the NNSA in fiscal year 2021.
Brouillette had backed the $17.5 billion proposed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
DoE had not released its detailed 2021 budget justification at deadline for Defense Daily, so it remains unclear exactly which programs would benefit most from the NNSA’s hoped-for windfall, if Congress decides to meet the request. Weapons Activities would get the lion’s share, according to the budget information that did trickle out Monday.
Weapons Activities handles nuclear weapons life-extension programs and the buildout of nuclear weapons production infrastructure, such as the NNSA’s proposed two-state plutonium-pit complex: the effort to produce 80 nuclear warhead cores a year by 2030. For the account, the White House seeks a roughly 25% year-over-year increase in 2021 to more than $15.5 billion. That is dramatically higher than the roughly $12.5 billion the agency forecast, only a year ago, that it would need for this account in fiscal 2021.
One of the highlight-reel programs listed in an NNSA press release about the request is preliminary work on a W93 warhead, or Next Navy Warhead, that would tip the eventual replacement for the submarine service’s Trident II D5 missile. The first production unit for that weapon, a replacement for the W76-1, which last year the NNSA finished retuning for decades more service, and the W88 that the agency is refubishing now, is notionally slated to arrive in the mid 2030s.
NNSA’s other main accounts, Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation and Naval Reactors, would respectively get a small cut from the 2020 appropriation, and a small raise. For the most part, the White House does not want the NNSA to cut its own programs in 2021 to fund the large increase it seeks for the Weapons Activities account.
Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, which aims to counter nuclear smuggling and dispose of surplus fissile material, would get roughly $2 billion, down about 6% compared with the 2020 budget. That is roughly the level NNSA forecast last year that it would need for 2021.
NNSA Naval Reactors, which designs and produces nuclear power plants and nuclear fuel for aircraft carriers and submarines, would get $1.7 billion, or about a 2% raise over the 2020 appropriation. That is only a little higher than the agency’s most recent forecast for the mission-critical account.
Reports that the Department of Defense would be the major bill payer were borne out Monday, when the Pentagon announced it would seek funding for one Virginia-class attack submarine, rather than two as initially planned. The attack boats are nuclear powered, but armed only with conventional weapons.
DoE’s Environmental Management Office, which oversees cleanup of shuttered Cold War nuclear weapons production sites, would likewise be asked to make do with fewer funds in 2021, under the White House’s 2021 request.
The administration seeks $6.1 billion for the cleanup office, which is almost $1.5 billion than the 2020 appropriation, and even lower than the White House’s 2020 Environmental Management request of $6.5 billion — another cut that DoE proposed the cleanup effort take to accommodate a long-anticipated ramp-up in the nuclear weapons modernization effort that the Obama administration started in 2016.
Trump decided in favor of the $20 billion NNSA budget ask after a January Oval Office meeting that included Brouillette, but not Gordon-Hagerty, and Republican lawmakers who reportedly backed the NNSA administrator’s request. The Hill contingent for that pivotal meeting, held before the Senate wrapped up the President’s impeachment trial, included Sen. Armed Services Chair Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Trump allies Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the conservative publication The Dispatch reported.