More nuclear weapons programs will roll into production phases in the 10 years ending 2028, increasing the total annual cost of these efforts by some $10 billion to about $50 billion a year, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said Thursday.

The spending estimate for 2019 through 2028 includes: the Department of Energy’s (DoE) bill for maintaining and upgrading nuclear materials and weapons; procuring the delivery vehicles and carrier craft that the Department of Defense uses to deploy those weapons; DoE-made nuclear reactors to power new ballistic missile submarines; and the cost of military command-and-control systems.

“[I]n the latest estimate, new programs are two years further along in the process of ramping up development, and some are entering the production phase — both of which tend to be characterized by higher annual costs,” the budget office wrote in the report,

Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2019 to 2028.

The 12-pager, the latest in a biennial series, figures to figure into many a debate on Capitol Hill this spring and summer. In November, Democrats re-took the majority in the House of Representatives, and Rep. Adam Smith (R-Wash.), the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said he wanted to trim the nuclear arsenal.

Smith’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

In total, 10-year spending for nukes will ring in at $494 billion between now and 2028, the report said. That compares with about $400 billion for the decade running 2017 through 2026. DOD’s projected annual share of nuclear spending is just over $30 billion, while DoE’s is roughly $17 billion, the CBO said.  

The latest decadal figure averages out annually to about seven percent of the Trump administration’s proposed 2020 defense budget. Republicans, who still have a majority in the Senate, have said they will fight to maintain that level of spending.

“[A]t no point does it [nuclear weapons] take more than seven percent of the [annual] defense budget,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told the press after a House Armed Services business meeting Thursday. “And you know, from my standpoint, it is a crucial foundation upon which the rest of our defense efforts are based. I think it’s important. I have no doubt that will be a topic we will discuss this year and next.”

Of the total $10-billion-a-year spending increase expected in the next 10 years, just under $2 billion, most of it in DOD’s budget, is attributable to the Columbia-class submarine program. The Navy expects to pump out the replacement boats for the aging Ohio fleet much faster, beginning in 2026, the CBO said.

An artist’s rendering of the U.S. Navy’s future Columbia-class submarine. (Image: U.S. Navy )

General Dynamics’ [GD] Electric Boat division of Groton, Ct., is the prime on Columbia, on tap to build 12 of the subs to replace the 18 existing Ohio-class boats. The budget office assumes Congress will authorize construction of one Columbia a year starting in 2026, meaning Thursday’s nuke-spending estimate includes the cost of five Columbia subs, compared two in the 2017 report.

On the civilian side of the arsenal, it could cost nearly $1 billion a year, or $9 billion over the 10 years ending 2028, for DoE to to produce fissile nuclear warhead cores called plutonium pits — but “that estimate is very uncertain,” the office wrote.

Since the office checked in on the DoE plutonium programs in 2017, the White House has asked the agency to produce more pits than previously planned, and do it using a more expensive pit complex than previously envisioned.

To crank out the 80 pits a year the Trump administration wants by 2030 — the Obama administration asked for up to 80 while Trump wants no fewer than 80 — DoE plans to upgrade pit infrastructure at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and convert a cancelled plutonium disposal facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. into a second pit factory.

The Obama administration had planned to center pit production in Los Alamos.

The proposed Savannah River facility, which DoD supports, would be responsible for 50 pits a year by 2030. Los Alamos would produce 30 pits a year. Los Alamos is preparing to ramp up pit production as soon as 2024, and DoE has lab management contractor Triad National Security studying whether Los Alamos could begin a year earlier. The nation’s first nuclear weapons lab would make the pits in its PF-4 Plutonium Facility, which just in 2019 the agency is spending $220 million to upgrade. From 2016 through 2024, the upgrades will cost between $2.5 billion and $3 billion DoE estimates.

The Savannah River pit plant, on the other hand, is not yet funded. That facility would be located on the premises of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility that DoE canned in October. DoE expects it will take until October to wind down construction and prepare the site for a new pit mission.

The Congressional Budget Office’s latest nuclear spending report was based on DoE and DoD’s 2019 budget requests. Baked into those documents were plans laid years ago by the Obama administration, which in 2016 started a 30-year, $1-trillion nuclear modernization and maintenance plan that the Trump administration has augmented.

Meanwhile, the administration is nominally to release its 2020 budget request in February, and that document could change the outlook for nuclear weapons spending, relative to the CBO report.

The CBO’s “projections are not meant to predict DoD’s and DoE’s future budgets, because Administrations typically change plans from year to year,” the office wrote.

Richard Abott contributed to this report from Washington.