Three months of frozen budgets is probably no big deal for the Department of Energy’s portfolio of 21st-century weapons-production construction, but a year’s worth would be bad news, a senior official said recently.
“We’re inoculated for a period of about a quarter,” Bob Raines, the DoE National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) associate administrator for acquisition and project management, said at a webcast hosted Oct. 29 by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance, a pair of D.C.-area on-government groups. “If it’s the whole year, we’ll be in trouble. We’re putting together an anomaly request of how we would like the Congress, even under a [continuing resolution] to realign funds.”
An anomaly is when an agency asks congressional appropriations committees for permission to spend money in a way other than current law allows. Congress sometimes packs anomalies into continuing resolutions, but more often, it does not.
The NNSA, DoE’s semi-autonomous nuclear-weapons agency, spends each summer and winter figuring out how to keep novel, long-term, multibillion-dollar construction and engineering projects funded on a year-to-year budget. Congress routinely fails to heed those funding requests in a timely way, instead passing a short-term funding appropriations that extend the prior year’s budget into all or part of another fiscal year — whether the old budget is a good fit for the new year or not.
This year’s short-term stop-gap, or continuing resolution, stretched 2020 budgets into Dec. 11, or about a full fiscal quarter.
NNSA’s Production Modernization account gets badly shortchanged under a continuing resolution, compared with what the agency says it needs for this year. The account funds construction of infrastructure the agency will depend on to make nuclear-weapons primary and secondary stages for much of the rest of the 21st century.
NNSA requested nearly $2.5 billion for Production Modernization in 2021. The stopgap holds the many programs in the account to the annualized level of about $1.5 billion. Within the total, programs to make plutonium pits, fissile nuclear-weapon cores for primary stages, face shortfalls, compared with the request.
The NNSA is preparing to make pits for future W87-1 intercontinental ballistic warheads at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site. The continuing resolution shorts the more-urgently needed Los Alamos facilities, which NNSA wants to make war-usable pits starting in 2024, even more than the planned Savannah River facility, which NNSA wants to start casting pits in 2030.
NNSA sought some $840 for Los Alamos Plutonium Modernization in 2021 and gets the equivalent of $308 million under the continuing resolution. For the Savannah River pit plant, the NNSA asked for just over $440 million in 2021 and gets the equivalent of $410 million, under the stopgap.