By George Lobsenz

Despite the Obama administration’s decision to kill the agency’s plans for a new warhead, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) told Congress Tuesday that new plutonium and high-enriched uranium facilities are still needed–not only to maintain the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but also to carry out a broad range of related national security missions, including nonproliferation, nuclear “forensics” and naval fuel.

However, NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino acknowledged that final plans for two key projects–the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 plant and the Chemistry Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) at Los Alamos National Laboratory–would have to reflect final decisions by the new administration on the future size of the nation’s nuclear stockpile and the need to reduce the cost and scope of the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons complex.

Further, D’Agostino confirmed that budget pressures already were forcing NNSA–the semi-autonomous weapons agency within DoE–to consider redesigning the Pit Conversion and Disassembly Facility (PCDF) at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

With the PCDF estimated at more than $2 billion, he said NNSA was considering utilizing the existing K Reactor building at Savannah River to incorporate plutonium pit processing capabilities into the mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility already being built at the site. The MOX facility is part of a nonproliferation effort to convert surplus weapons plutonium extracted from warhead pits into plutonium-uranium fuel for commercial reactor.

D’Agostino said NNSA would look for similar cost-savings and efficiencies in the UPF, which is planned for DoE’s Oak Ridge, Tenn., site, and in the CMRR, which he said was critical to maintaining plutonium research and processing capabilities at Los Alamos in New Mexico.

He said both facilities were not aimed at new weapons production, but rather to carry out warhead maintenance activities now being conducted at aging and unsafe facilities dating back to the Cold War.

More broadly, he said UPF and CMRR would provide the material-handling and analytical capabilities needed for nonproliferation missions, nuclear “forensics” work to track the origin of dangerous nuclear materials and naval fuel production.

“UPF and CMRR are critical uranium and plutonium capabilities,” D’Agostino said. “They lay the path forward for nuclear security broadly that I think the nation will need in the future.”

D’Agostino delivered his remarks to the House Appropriations Committee’s energy and water subcommittee, which during the Bush administration repeatedly challenged NNSA proposals to develop new warheads and build new weapons production facilities.

Subcommittee members were among the first lawmakers to oppose NNSA’s reliable replacement warhead (RRW), which the agency said was needed to modernize the nation’s Cold War-era nuclear arsenal. They also criticized NNSA plans to build sizable new plutonium pit manufacturing facilities, saying they were far too big in light of the shrinking arsenal.

Subcommittee Chairman Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) said he had no preconceived notions about how big NNSA’s budget or the nuclear weapons complex should be. However, he said he would favor spending more money in the near term to achieve a “rationalized” complex that was properly sized to maintain a nuclear arsenal that most experts believe will continue to get smaller.

Three nuclear weapons experts largely agreed with Visclosky, telling the subcommittee that NNSA had to reconsider all its weapons complex plans in light of the Obama administration’s decision on the RRW, which they said largely eliminated any prospect that additional weapons production capability was needed.

“It’s become obvious that the complex is too large,” said Everet Beckner, former deputy NNSA administrator for defense programs, who suggested NNSA needed to “examine the major facilities that are contemplated and look for ways to take out what I call excess contingency planning.”

In particular, he said the PCDF, UPF and CMRR–all estimated at more than $2 billion–“have to be scrutinized further to see what reductions can be made. The budget cannot swallow those three projects as presently aligned.”

D’Agostino said NNSA was conducting those project scrubs while it continues to design work on those facilities. He said no decisions would be made on those projects until the Obama administration completed its ongoing nuclear posture review on the size of the stockpile and nuclear weapons production needs. The administration’s decision is expected in December.

D’Agostino said Congress could be sure it was not “over-committing” to new facilities by providing design funding in NNSA’s fiscal year 2010 budget because no final decisions would be made on those projects until the new stockpile policy is in place. He said lawmakers will not rule on the need for new NNSA facilities until they begin deliberating early next year on the agency’s fiscal 2011 budget.