A backup defense authorization act unveiled this week would authorize $16.5 billion in Department of Energy nuclear-weapon spending for 2020, and explicitly authorize new program starts to bolster nuclear warhead and naval fuel efforts.

Armed Services Committee Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla) lifted the lid on the so-called “skinny” National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) late Monday.

Chiefly, the measure would extend key military and DoE spending authorities — payments for military personnel and funds for some overseas war operations — beyond their current sunset date of Dec. 31. 

It would also authorize DoE appropriations made available under either a permanent 2020 budget, or another continuing resolution. With Senate Democrats indicating this week that they would block permanent 2020 DoE and Pentagon spending bills because they would fund President Trump’s proposed southern border wall, prospects rose for the second stopgap budget of the still-young fiscal year. 

Aside from authorizing spending on defense nuclear programs generally, the skinny NDAA would among other things authorize DOE’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to expand a Los Alamos National Lab Facility in preparation to begin producing war-usuable plutonium-pits  nuclear-weapon cores.

Los Alamos is on tap to produce 10 pits a year for W87-1-style warhead by 2024, and 30 a year by 2026. The weapons would be suitable for use on future Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Missiles slated to replace the existing nuclear-tipped Minuteman III fleet beginning in 2030. NNSA aims to produce 80 pits a year by 2030 between Los Alamos and a planned plant in South Carolina.

The skinny bill also would authorize the NNSA to expand part of the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in New York to continue research nuclear fuel improvements for the Navy.

Democratic lawmakers who lead the House, including House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), still say they would prefer to pass a full NDAA. Bicameral conference negotiations over that bill have stalled as Democrats resist Republican efforts to use the Pentagon’s budget to fund construction of the wall.

The Senate Armed Services Committee had not scheduled a vote on the skinny bill at deadline Thursday for Defense Daily.

Even if the bill, or the larger NDAA, passes, DoE defense nuclear programs could still struggle to hit their 2020 targets if they are again stuck with a continuing resolution that extends the 2019 budget further into the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The current continuing resolution runs through Nov. 21.

At 2019 levels, the NNSA would get about $15.2 billion in another bridge budget: much lower than either the $16.5 billion requested for 2020, the House’s proposed $16 billion, or the Senate’s recommended $17 billion.

Appropriations bills set policy and spending limits for appropriations bills, which are written by separate committees.

The NNSA’s portfolio of nuclear-weapons modernization, maintenance and nonproliferation programs would be authorized under the skinny bill at the annual level of $16.5 billion: exactly what the White House requested, and more than the $15.9 billion the House NDAA would authorize.

Specific NNSA new starts under the bill include:

  • Expansion of the KL Fuel Development Laboratory at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y. NNSA would be authorized to spend more than $23.5 million improving the site, which researches nuclear fuel technology for U.S. naval warships and submarines.
  • The General Purpose Project for the PF–4 Plutonium Facility’s Power and Communications Systems Upgrade at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. NNSA would be authorized to spend $16 million on those non-nuclear improvements, if the skinny NDAA becomes law. PF-4 would produce Los Alamos’ share of future plutonium pits.