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Budget Bill Boosts NNSA Nonproliferation Program, Increases Oversight

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON – Looking to address concerns regarding the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget, Senate appropriators on Tuesday advanced legislation that boosts funding for a key nonproliferation program and requires frequent NNSA reports to Congress regarding cost overruns and delays to planned weapons facilities (see GSN, March 27).

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, also announced that the legislation would authorize the Energy Department to begin exploring interim storage options for the nation’s nuclear waste, citing security concerns and the potential for disasters similar to Japan’s Fukushima crisis.

During Tuesday’s markup session, Feinstein’s panel approved a bill that would provide an additional $54 million for the Second Line of Defense program, which installs radiation detection equipment at foreign border crossings, seaports and airports. Feinstein and other lawmakers have been critical of the Obama administration’s request for $92.6 million to fund the program in fiscal 2013, which would represent a 65-percent funding cut from the $262.1 million Congress allocated in the current budget year.

Senior NNSA officials have defended the cuts, saying the program’s near completion of work in Russia and a constrained budget environment made it prudent to “pause” and evaluate the initiative’s future. The officials pledged last month to complete a strategic review of the program, which by the end of 2012 will have installed radiation detection equipment at nearly 500 foreign ports or border crossing sites and carries a goal of equipping 650 sites by 2018 (see GSN, March 7).

President Obama’s “goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years” should be “highest [NNSA] priority,” according to Feinstein.

The full Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the energy and water appropriations legislation on Thursday.

Overall, the bill matches the president’s request for funding of NNSA nonproliferation operations, providing nearly $2.5 billion, or $163 million above what Congress provided for the budget year that ends on Sept. 30.

The bill also meets the president’s total funding request for the agency's nuclear weapons activities, providing about $7.6 billion, or $363 million above fiscal 2012. Feinstein said the bill supports life-extension programs for the W-76, W-78 and B-61 warheads as “the highest priorities for nuclear weapons modernization,” but the subcommittee declined to provide additional details or release a copy of the legislation.

Referencing concerns over an expected five-year delay in constructing a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory in New Mexico, Feinstein said the bill would provide $160 million to sustain production of the plutonium cores for nuclear warheads, begin an “alternative plutonium strategy” and to “make upgrades to existing facilities.”

Due to “serious concern[s]” regarding “waste, duplication and mismanagement at NNSA,” subcommittee lawmakers included in the legislation language requiring the semiautonomous division of the Energy Department to report to Congress every six months and explain any cost increases associated with weapons facilities, Feinstein said.

Feinstein first broached the idea of frequent reports during a hearing last month, at which she unveiled a Government Accountability Office assessment on cost overruns associated with the future plutonium facility at Los Alamos.

The chairwoman also announced that the spending bill would include language authorizing the Energy Department to begin studying the possibility of moving spent fuel from nuclear reactor plants to above-ground, interim storage sites. Currently, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act prohibits the department from considering interim storage until a permanent repository – such as the canceled Yucca Mountain project – is fully licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Feinstein told reporters after the markup that Japan’s Fukushima reactor disaster last year showed that “we really can’t predict what can happen” and that leaving nuclear waste in spent fuel pools or dry cask storage near reactors is a concern. The threat of spent fuel pools becoming drained and exposing radioactive waste was a concern at Fukushima.

Some nuclear watchdog groups have opposed interim storage in the past, however, raising security concerns associated with transporting the waste multiple times, instead of directly to a permanent disposal facility.

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