“The bow wave has arrived” for the civilian nuclear-weapons budget, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned Wednesday in a report that, amid recommendations for streamlining budget and project organization, made room for a we-told-you-so about the effects of deferring upgrades for nuclear weapons and their production infrastructure.

The Department of Energy’s “appropriation for fiscal year 2021 includes a 23 percent increase over the prior fiscal year for NNSA’s [National Nuclear Security Administration] modernization activities,” the GAO said. “We found in July 2020 that an increase such as this suggests that the bow wave has arrived, because this increase largely supported existing programs rather than new ones.”

Notable among the increases for existing programs was the NNSA’s drive to build factories for plutonium pits, fissile nuclear-weapon triggers, in New Mexico and South Carolina.

For fiscal year 2022, the Biden administration requested about $20 billion for the NNSA and its portfolio of nuclear-weapons modernization, nonproliferation and naval reactors programs. That’s about flat with the 2021 appropriation overall, but the proposed NNSA weapons budget for 2022, $15.5 billion, is 12 percent less than the Trump administration estimated would be necessary in the fiscal year that begins October 1.

“If funding is reduced, appropriate prioritization across modernization work will be essential,” the GAO warned in Wednesday’s report, “NNSA Should Use Portfolio Management Leading Practices to Support Modernization Efforts.”

The purpose of the report was to recommend that the NNSA follow budgeting and management best practices developed by the GAO and the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit, Project Management Institute. 

In response to those recommendations, Charles Verdon, the acting administrator of the NNSA, essentially told the Government Accountability Office that the NNSA was already doing what Congress’ investigative arm recommended. 

“NNSA’s well-established budget portfolios reflected in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget structure, together with capability portfolios as defined in the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, represent the core of our portfolio management framework,” Verdon wrote in a letter appended to the GAO’s latest report on the NNSA. “While we will continue to enhance and refine the framework as our portfolio management activities mature, we believe the core framework is both defined and in place. NNSA considers this recommendation closed.” 

At deadline, the Government Accountability Office’s website indicated that the office still considered the recommendation open. 

For fiscal year 2021, the NNSA overhauled its bookkeeping, trading sometimes oblique spending categories such as “directed stockpile work” for what the agency hoped were plainer labels, such as “stockpile management,” “production modernization” and others. 

While that occasionally made it difficult to track spending on certain programs compared with the previous fiscal year, the NNSA provided some explanation of the changes in its own 2021 budget request. The Congressional Research Services also created a visual crosswalk between the 2020 and 2021 budgets.

Privately, congressional aides have said the NNSA’s new budget presentation made for a more organized and understandable spending request. Congress evidently agreed, because the 2021 appropriation became law with the agency’s preferred categorization intact.