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Despite Veto Threat, Lawmakers Stand Ground On Warhead Cost Issue

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

An Air Force sergeant inspects a Minuteman 3 missile, which uses the W-78 nuclear warhead. House and Senate lawmakers are not budging in debate over a proposed study on whether it would be cheaper to refurbish the W-78 or replace it with a Navy-interoperable warhead (U.S. Air Force/Los Alamos National Laboratory). An Air Force sergeant inspects a Minuteman 3 missile, which uses the W-78 nuclear warhead. House and Senate lawmakers are not budging in debate over a proposed study on whether it would be cheaper to refurbish the W-78 or replace it with a Navy-interoperable warhead (U.S. Air Force/Los Alamos National Laboratory).

WASHINGTON -- House and Senate lawmakers are standing firm in a feud with the White House over whether the Obama administration should be required to study alternatives to a costly plan for upgrading a pair of U.S. nuclear warheads.

Lawmakers, however, have dropped a controversial provision favored by some House Republicans that would have required the administration to expand a pilot program under which U.S. nuclear-weapons contractors could assess their own performance, according to a congressional source.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats unveiled on Monday evening a compromise version of fiscal 2014 defense authorization legislation. The deal requires the study pertaining to the warhead upgrade plan, despite a White House formal objection issued last month.

The warhead issue involves an Energy Department plan issued earlier this year under which the United States would create interoperable nuclear warheads capable of multiple tasks. The first such weapon would be called the “IW-1,” and would have the ability to replace both the W-78 -- currently fitted on ground-based ballistic missiles -- and the W-88, used on submarine-based missiles.

Arms control advocates have suggested it might be cheaper to modernize the existing weapons with separate update packages rather than create the new, interoperable warheads. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle similarly have raised concerns about the plan.

In addition to the defense authorization bill language, appropriations bills approved earlier this year in both the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-run Senate -- though not yet signed into law -- encourage the administration to study both options before making a commitment.

The new defense authorization bill "requires a cost comparison for the interoperable warhead as well as the two strategic warheads it will replace to ensure the Congress understands the full cost (and risk) implications of the proposed program," according to a summary of the legislation. The complete conference bill was not available at press time.

In the veto threat that the White House issued last month, the administration argued that studying both options would cause costly delays to its stockpile-management plans.

In June, the White House also objected to a House provision that would require the National Nuclear Security Administration to expand a program under which federal contractors that run nuclear-weapons sites assess their own performance, consistent with a pilot program ongoing at the NNSA Kansas City Plant in Missouri.

The White House said such a move "could result in unacceptable reduction of protection of workers, the public and security interests," and would be premature given that a new congressional panel charged with studying NNSA oversight issues has just begun its work.

NNSA oversight has been a high-profile issue since an incident last year in which an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists infiltrated the Y-12 National Nuclear Security Complex in Tennessee. The House Armed Services Committee has made several attempts to relax NNSA oversight since then, but the proposals have been mostly rejected by other congressional committees.

Similarly, the compromise version of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill excludes the Kansas City Plant program language sponsored by the House panel, the congressional source told Global Security Newswire.

The source, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and asked to remain anonymous, said the bill requires only that the administration preserve portions of the original pilot program "that use industry best practices, which everyone agrees was valuable and cost effective."

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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