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Draft Senate Bill Boosts Nonproliferation Spending, May Limit Warhead Update

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

The tail section of a B-61 nuclear gravity bomb undergoes testing at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. A Senate appropriations bill marked up Tuesday would require the Obama administration to “reassess options” for a planned $10 billion project to update B-61 bombs (U.S. Sandia National Laboratories/Natural Resources Defense Council). The tail section of a B-61 nuclear gravity bomb undergoes testing at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. A Senate appropriations bill marked up Tuesday would require the Obama administration to “reassess options” for a planned $10 billion project to update B-61 bombs (U.S. Sandia National Laboratories/Natural Resources Defense Council).

WASHINGTON -- Senate appropriators are looking to boost funding for efforts to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons and could at some point set the stage for scaling back the scope of plans to modernize U.S. atomic warheads.

The Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee on Tuesday approved a fiscal 2014 spending bill that panel Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) said provides $2.18 billion for nonproliferation programs -- $40 million more than the $2.14 billion that the Obama administration is seeking.

Feinstein and her staff declined to release full details about the legislation until after it is marked up by the full Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. However, the chairwoman said the bill includes $73 million in increases for National Nuclear Security Administration programs that “secure and eliminate nuclear and radiological materials” for the purpose of cleaning “out the remaining handful of countries” with “dangerous” items.

The legislation also boosts funding by $50 million for the deployment of “fixed and mobile radiation-detection capability overseas to detect nuclear smuggling,” according to Feinstein. “This level of funding reverses cuts to programs that prevent nuclear terrorism, which is the highest national security priority,” she said during the markup.

Feinstein’s staff declined to specify what other nonproliferation cuts the bill makes to accommodate those increases.

The Senate legislation matches the administration’s request for $7.87 billion for nuclear weapons activities. It requires NNSA officials, though, to “reassess options” for a program aimed at refurbishing aging B-61 nuclear warheads so that “it can deliver refurbished bombs to the Air Force by 2019 within realistic budget projections,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein in recent months has repeatedly criticized the B-61 life extension program for being overly ambitious. In April she complained that NNSA officials are pursuing $10 billion in upgrades to the gravity bombs when a simpler, $1.5 billion plan to refurbish three critical components could have been completed by 2017.

The senator continued this line of criticism on Monday, telling reporters that it may not be necessary to pursue the “Cadillac” of upgrades to the B-61. She said her take on the issue in part reflected her view that the B-61 would never be used in combat, along with her support for further bilateral arms reductions with Russia, as President Obama has called for.

The House spending bill released earlier this month also calls attention to the question of expenditures on warhead life-extension efforts. It would require the administration by the end of the year to draft a “report which provides an analysis of alternatives for each major warhead refurbishment plan.”

The report sought by the House would include a “summary of the overall cost, scope, and schedule planning assumptions for the major refurbishment activity.” The Energy Department would also be asked to provide a “full description of alternatives considered” and a “comparison of the costs and benefits of each of those alternatives, to include an analysis of trade-offs among cost, schedule, and performance objectives against each alternative considered.”

At press time it was unclear whether the Senate bill would go further and actually limit funds for the B-61 program until such a report is completed. Feinstein’s staff declined to discuss the issue further in advance of Thursday's full committee markup.

Due to concerns about delays and cost overruns to such program, the bill also a “requires NNSA to report to Congress every six months on the status of projects with a minimum cost of $750 million and explain to us any cost increases, scheduling delays or changes of scope,” Feinstein said.

It also “establishes an independent commission to determine the extent to which the national labs are appropriately configured to meet the energy and national security challenges of the 21st century,” she said. The national laboratories, which are under NNSA oversight, play a key role in the warhead programs.

Also in the bill is an undisclosed amount of money for the development of small modular nuclear reactors, which in the past have prompted proliferation concerns due to their mobile nature.

Funding levels in the Senate bill differ from that of House appropriators, who are looking to cut weapons spending below the administration’s request and match the Obama team's proposal for a cut to nonproliferation programs. Language in the House defense authorization bill for fiscal 2014 could further limit nonproliferation spending.

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