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House Spending Bill Diverges From Earlier Measure on Nuclear Facility

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

The Radiological Laboratory and Utility Office Building portion of a new complex for chemistry and metallurgy research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Legislation approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday would provide no new fiscal 2013 funding for plutonium facility design and construction at the site (U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory photo). The Radiological Laboratory and Utility Office Building portion of a new complex for chemistry and metallurgy research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Legislation approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday would provide no new fiscal 2013 funding for plutonium facility design and construction at the site (U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory photo).

WASHINGTON -- An appropriations bill approved Wednesday evening on the House floor appears at odds with a move last month by the same chamber to continue work on a new plutonium research facility that the Obama administration had moved to delay (see GSN, June 5).

The House energy and water spending bill for fiscal 2013 provides no new funds for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement nuclear facility, aligning it with the Energy Department announcement earlier this year that the effort would be put on hold.

The legislation also withholds $65 million in prior-year appropriations for the CMRR effort, leaving perhaps just a fraction of funds that the House defense authorization bill had earlier directed be spent in the coming year to continue the site’s design and construction.

Administration officials had said in previous years that an estimated $6 billion-or-more CMRR nuclear facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico would be vital in ensuring that the plutonium cores of U.S. warheads remain functional into the future, despite a decades-long moratorium on underground explosive testing.

However, under pressure by last year’s Budget Control Act to cut billions of dollars from future national security spending, the Energy Department and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration said in February they had little choice but to at least temporarily shelve plans for the new plutonium lab while contemplating more cost-effective alternatives (see GSN, Feb. 14).

The appropriations legislation, passed by the House in a 255-165 vote, accepts the administration move to delay the facility’s design and construction for five years, pending an assessment of potential work-arounds for warhead research and certification. Those could include using excess laboratory capacity elsewhere in the nuclear complex and other measures, such as recycling used plutonium cores, also called warhead “pits.”

The CMRR site has been described as a research facility in which samples from existing and newly produced pits could be analyzed, helping support the ability of the nuclear complex in future years to certify that warheads would continue to perform properly, if ever needed. An initial building in the new complex, a radiological laboratory, has already been constructed and is operating.

The House bill approved on Wednesday funds NNSA nuclear weapon activities at more than $7.5 billion and nonproliferation efforts totaling in excess of $2 billion.

The unusual note of bipartisan support for cutting CMRR expenditures did not spare the administration from a knuckle-rapping last month by the House Appropriations Committee. It said in a May 2 report on energy and water development spending that the CMRR program delay, “presumably [an] attempt to make the [nuclear complex] modernization program more affordable,” instead actually “confused and muddled the path forward.”

The House energy and water report recommended that the $65 million it rescinded from prior-year CMRR funds instead be used to offset budget shortfalls at other Los Alamos operations, namely safety improvements and vault cleanup at the laboratory’s existing PF-4 plutonium pit-manufacturing building.

The chamber’s energy and water legislation also directs the nuclear agency to submit a report to Congress within 60 days of the bill’s enactment that explains how it will sustain plutonium pits in the next five years, as well as lay out a plan for “meeting enduring needs beyond the five-year time frame.”

By contrast, the House authorization bill allowed for $100 million in spending on the CMRR program for the budget year that begins on Oct. 1. It additionally advised that up to $160 million in as-yet unspent prior-year funds be used in 2013 for continuing the effort.

A counterpart authorization bill in the Senate similarly called on the Obama team in fiscal 2013 to spend $150 million in new funds to keep work going on the facility, plus gave the go-ahead to use an indeterminate amount of prior-year dollars toward the same end.

Under earlier administration plans, the CMRR nuclear facility was to have been built at Los Alamos by 2024. Upon delivering its 2013 budget request to Capitol Hill in February, though, the Obama team said postponing CMRR design and construction would yield a savings of $1.8 billion over five years.

With no new target date set for when CMRR construction would be complete, many critics and supporters alike on Capitol Hill have concluded that the administration had, in practical terms, killed the effort.

In the meantime, U.S. officials said, the National Nuclear Security Administration would assess alternative ways of performing analytical chemistry and related research that would eventually support a capacity to produce up to 50 to 80 new plutonium pits annually.

Defense officials have also said they are reviewing whether fewer warhead pits might be needed in the years to come, if the president decides that the size of the U.S. deployed and nondeployed atomic stockpile can be further reduced.

The search for an alternative plutonium production strategy did not sit well with either the House or Senate Armed Services committees.

In its May 11 report authorizing defense spending for fiscal 2013, the Republican-led House panel called the new plutonium research facility’s “timely construction” a “critical” factor in ensuring sufficient pit-production capability as a hedge against any technical problems discovered in the U.S. stockpile or the resurgence of a strategic threat to the nation.

The House move to keep CMRR construction alive was spearheaded by Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), who chairs the chamber’s Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

Turner also succeeded in placing into the House Armed Services report a provision that said beginning in fiscal 2014, authority to fund the design and construction of the CMRR nuclear plant would shift from the National Nuclear Security Administration to the Defense Department.

This measure reflected a view among some critics that the Pentagon’s military construction bureaucracy could more effectively deliver a facility on budget and in the time frame needed, compared to the NNSA and national laboratory staffs. Under the Energy Department’s purview, CMRR costs have ballooned and target dates have slid into the more distant future.

The House bill demanded that the Los Alamos plutonium facility -- and a companion construction effort, the Uranium Processing Facility, to be located at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- be built by 2021 and become “fully operational by not later than 2024.”

When the energy and water bill emerged from the House Appropriations Committee without 2013 funding identified for the CMRR effort, some observers anticipated that Turner would offer a floor amendment to help ensure that the extra dollars authorized would ultimately be provided.

The Ohio congressman did not come forward with such a measure, though, leading some Capitol Hill aides and observers to conclude that he had determined he lacked the votes.

Could this be “the dog that didn’t bark?” asked Kingston Reif, who directs nuclear nonproliferation issues at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, in a Wednesday blog post.

However, Thomas Crosson, a spokesman for Turner, said there had been “no need” for any such amendment to the House energy and water appropriations bill because the House and Senate authorization bills put the CMRR effort on firm footing.

“There are enough prior-year funds available to keep the design process going forward in [fiscal] ’13,” he said in a written response to questions. “And with the shift to [Defense military construction] in [fiscal] ’14, the project will continue. So there wasn’t a need to seek additional funds in the [energy and water] bill, because we have enough money for [2013] and then it becomes MILCON” in 2014, he said.

Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, has not advocated scrapping the CMRR nuclear facility but does support a pause in the effort so that alternative approaches can be weighed.

“The problem with forcing NNSA to build CMRR now is that it dismisses the prioritized requirements set by the Department of Defense, including [U.S. Strategic Command], and the Department of Energy,” Sanchez said in a statement provided to Global Security Newswire on Thursday.

The House bill provision “ignores the cost of up to $6 billion in the next several years for something that is not needed now, particularly when there has been no detailed reviews of updated requirements for pit production levels, of the feasibility of cost-effective alternatives such as pit reuse, and of the benefits of delaying CMRR to coincide with the need to replace” later on other Los Alamos facilities key to warhead pit production, she said.

Sanchez and Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) attempted to co-sponsor an amendment that would have stripped the CMRR funding and directives from the defense authorization bill when it went to the House floor last month, but the chamber’s Rules Committee blocked the measure from being considered.

The House version of the defense authorization bill passed in that chamber on May 18 in a 299-120 vote.

Filing its own report on 2013 defense spending authorization on June 4, the Democratic-led Senate Armed Services Committee also scolded the administration, saying the five-year delay in CMRR work would actually cost the taxpayer an additional $3 billion and leave “this vital national mission” essentially in limbo.

“If [the] CMRR [nuclear facility] is not built, the alternative plutonium strategy will simply shift increased pit costs from not using a single facility into future life-extension programs in the out-years,” the Senate defense authorization report reads.

The Senate bill authorizes $150 million in fiscal 2013 funding to be used for CMRR construction, but prohibits the nuclear agency from taking dollars away from other priority efforts -- to include the Y-12 complex -- in order to find money for the plutonium facility account. Similar to the House measure, the Senate legislation encourages the administration to spend additional dollars on the effort that might be left over from past years.

The Senate committee additionally moved to cap the price tag for the plutonium research plant at $3.7 billion, noting that One World Trade Center, once it is complete, “will be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere” but is estimated to cost just $3.9 billion.

This bill has not yet gone to a floor vote in the Senate. After it does, members of the two Armed Services panels will meet in a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile differences between the two measures. The resulting conference bill will be sent to the White House for the president’s signature.

The fourth panel to address CMRR spending -- the Senate Appropriations Committee -- also criticized the National Nuclear Security Administration in its April 26 report on energy and water development. That panel charged that the agency “failed to put forth an alternative plutonium strategy” when it decided to delay work on the new Los Alamos facility.

Like the House appropriations bill that followed, the Senate energy and water spending legislation left untouched the Obama effort to delay the CMRR facility, but it did direct the nuclear agency “to submit a comprehensive plutonium strategy by Oct. 15, 2012.”

“The committee encourages NNSA to use available funds to procure and install additional analytical chemistry equipment to maximize the authorized use of nuclear material in [its] new Radiological Laboratory” at the Los Alamos CMRR complex site, according to the Senate appropriations panel report.

The full Senate has not yet voted on this bill.

A spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration on Friday said agency officials "respect [the congressional] criticism but fundamentally disagree."

"This isn't about a building, it's about a capability that we are able to maintain without immediate construction," Josh McConaha said in a written response to questions. "We will continue to work with Congress to reduce the degree of uncertainty.  We have a clear plan that will maintain our world-class plutonium capabilities and guarantee that the deterrent will remain safe, secure, and effective."

Once the Senate defense authorization legislation clears a floor vote, one significant difference to be resolved in an upcoming conference with the House is likely to be the question of agency control over the plutonium facility effort. While the House opted to move authority for the program to Defense Department as of 2014, there was no such initiative in the counterpart Senate bill. The two chambers will also have to settle on a single set of figures for authorized CMRR expenditures in 2013.

Even more important is the question of whether House and Senate authorizers -- who want to see the CMRR site proceed using some combination of prior-year and 2013 dollars -- will prevail over House and Senate appropriators. The latter lawmakers did not designate any funds for the major construction project to continue.

“While the authorizers are trying to keep [the] CMRR [nuclear facility] afloat, both Senate and … House appropriators agree that the facility is unaffordable now and not needed now, since a cheaper alternative to maintaining essential plutonium capabilities exists,” Reif told GSN on Thursday.

Three House Republican aides also interviewed on Thursday noted that defense authorization legislation dictates spending policy and, in this instance, the bills direct that specific funds be spent to design and build the CMRR facility. Both authorization bills also demand that the lab site begin operations by 2024.

These aides and others spoke on condition of anonymity for this article because they lacked permission to address the topic publicly.

“The authorizers will settle whether there’s an alternative to [the] CMRR [nuclear facility] or not,” said one of the staffers. The administration cannot legally spend any appropriations that lack specific authorization, such as any funds appropriated for alternative plutonium research plans in place of building the CMRR nuclear facility by 2024, the aides contended.

In fact, House and Senate appropriations conferees would be unlikely to agree that CMRR funds should be used for alternative purposes -- lacking defense authorization language on it -- because “they are loathe to waste money,” said one of the staffers.

However, another congressional aide interviewed the same day said the legislative outcome is not yet clear, and lawmakers are likely to have a showdown over the matter before it is resolved.

Appropriators often get the last word regarding where funds are spent because that is where congressional control over purse strings is ultimately applied. In the CMRR case, no new 2013 funds for the facility have been appropriated and it appears uncertain whether the administration would spend prior-year dollars for the construction project.

Reif concurred.

“My understanding is that the facility won’t be built unless the appropriators agree to it,” he said.  “For example, if the House and Senate agreed in conference to the [Senate Armed Services] proposal, which authorizes $150 million from somewhere else in NNSA or DOD and an unidentified amount in prior-year balances, these funds would need to be reprogrammed.”

Shifting large sums of money from one program account to another requires the approval of four key House and Senate spending committees, to include “the assent of the appropriators,” Reif noted.  “Since both the House and Senate Appropriations committees didn’t fund CMRR, that assent is unlikely to be forthcoming.”

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