The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that would authorize all the White House’s requested funding for nuclear modernization programs at the Department of Energy and the Pentagon.

The Senate bill would provide a year of bipartisan support for the Trump administration’s nuclear modernization plans, which are essentially a lightly modified continuation of the 30-year nuclear-arsenal refurb the Obama administration started in 2016. 

In stark contrast, the House’s version of the NDAA — up for floor debate as soon as the week of July 8 — eyes major changes for the decades-long nuclear refresh by slowing work on nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs at DoE and the Defense Department.

Senators this week filed almost 700 amendments to the 2020 NDAA that just cleared the floor, but lawmakers in the end voted on just three of these during floor debate this week.

However, one of those was effectively a major rewrite of the 2020 NDAA that the Senate Armed Services Committee approved in May.

This massive substitute amendment, offered by Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on Monday, contained nearly 100 policy changes negotiated behind closed doors before floor debate started on Tuesday.

These changes to the substitute amendment, which sailed through the Senate 86-8 to become the upper chamber’s 2020 NDAA, are “amendments,” Inhofe said.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Martin Heinrich (D.N.M) scored one of these “amendments,” which would toughen federal law by requiring DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to produce 80 war reserve pits by 2030. 

Federal law as written requires NNSA to do a pilot program in 2027 that “demonstrates the capacity” to make 80 pits annually. Current law also allows NNSA and the Secretary of Defense to delay the demo for up to two years; the Graham-Heinrich amendment would remove that option.

The House’s version of the NDAA would keep the 2027 pilot program requirement, but require the NNSA to demonstrate capacity only for 30 pits annually.

All of the pits NNSA wants to make by 2030 — the agency plans to start with 10 a year in Los Alamos in 2024 and ramp up to 30 annually there by 2026 — would be cores for future W87-1 warheads. Those warheads, refurbished versions of the W80-1 warheads used today on Minuteman III ICBMs, would tip the planned Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missiles the Pentagon wants to deploy in 2030. The ICBM fleet would consist of about 400 deployed, silo-based missiles.

Heinrich and Graham, respectively, represent the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. The NNSA wants to make pits at both sites: 80 a year by 2030, including 50 a year at Savannah River by 2030. 

At Los Alamos, the agency would substantially upgrade existing pit infrastructure; at Savannah River Site, the stockpile steward would modify a partially completed plutonium disposal plant into a brand new pit plant.

Heinrich and Graham’s amendment would keep the pressure on NNSA to fund the dual-state pit strategy. It presents a bi-partisan front heading into practically inevitable conference negotiations with the House, where majority Democrats want to kill the two-state pit strategy and put the proposed pit mission in Graham’s home state on ice.

The NNSA itself has said it will be “a challenge” to hit 80 pits a year by 2030. A series of analyses dating back to 2017, including one written by NNSA and another written under contract to the agency by Parsons Government Services [PSN], have concluded NNSA cannot hit the milestone.

NNSA insists that it can get to 80 a year by 2030, if Congress authorizes and approves all the funding the agency requests. That starts with the $16.5 billion the agency sought for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The Senate NDAA authorized every penny of that, including the more than $710 million requested for the Plutonium Sustainment account that funds design and construction of the NNSA’s proposed pit plants. 

On the other hand, the NDAA headed toward the House floor would provide under $16 billion for the NNSA: 4% less funding than sought by the White House, but an increase of about 4.5% compared with the 2019 budget. Plutonium Sustainment would get only about $470 million in the House NDAA. 

House appropriators have already passed a 2020 spending bill with the same amounts of funding for NNSA pit-production and warhead programs.

For the NNSA’s W87-1 warhead life-extension program, the Senate NDAA authorizes the roughly $110 million the White House requested. The House’s NDAA would slash that by more than half, providing $53 million. 

For the final year of a three-year competition between Boeing [BA] and Northrop Grumman [NOC] to design the solid-fueled Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) ICBMs themselves, the Senate NDAA would provide $590 million: even more than the $570 million requested. The House NDAA would provide around $490 million.

Among the other “amendments” to the Senate NDAA is one that would require the Pentagon and NNSA to tell Congress each year whether there are any delays to the GBSD or W87-1 programs, and the projected date for finishing those programs. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), whose home state includes the Minuteman III silos and control centers of Minot Air Force Base, wrote that one.

The GBSD program could cost about $100 billion, the Washington-based, disarmament-advocating Arms Control Association nonprofit reported in 2017. The Air Force said this year the cost could rise.

The NNSA estimates its two-state plutonium pit program will cost around $30 billion over the course of its decades-long life, and that the W87-1 program will cost between $10 billion and $15 billion over the 20 years ending in 2040 or so.