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Key Democrat Criticizes Nuke, Nonproliferation Budgets

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A U.S. B-2 bomber carries a mock B-61 nuclear gravity bomb during a 2011 trial flight conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration and Air Force. A key Democrat suggested Wednesday that the Obama administration should simplify bomb refurbishment plans rather than cut funds from nonproliferation efforts (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). A U.S. B-2 bomber carries a mock B-61 nuclear gravity bomb during a 2011 trial flight conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration and Air Force. A key Democrat suggested Wednesday that the Obama administration should simplify bomb refurbishment plans rather than cut funds from nonproliferation efforts (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON – A key Democrat on Wednesday suggested the Obama administration should consider scaling back nuclear weapons updates rather than cut money from nonproliferation programs in order to pay for them, but stopped short of threatening to mandate such a change through appropriations legislation.

Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, asked during a budget hearing why the National Nuclear Security Administration is pursuing $10 billion in life-extending upgrades to 400 B-61 gravity bombs. The first B-61 unit is now not expected to be ready until March 2020, Feinstein said, while a simpler $1.5 billion plan to refurbish three critical components could have been completed by 2017.

“The current scope is now much more ambitious, replacing hundreds of components,” Feinstein noted. She asked whether, “given current budget conditions, cost overruns, schedule delays” and competing priorities, NNSA officials would reassess the scope of the B-61 life extension plan.

The B-61 bombs, approximately 200 of which are stationed in Europe, are designed to be dropped from planes. Some arms control advocates have argued that the more expensive refurbishment plan adds new military capabilities rather than simply extending the life of the existing weapons. The administration claims the updates only add safety and security features.

Donald Cook, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, said the semi-independent Energy Department agency and the Pentagon have “had a continuous assessment of the scope ongoing for the past several years.” However, the Air Force ultimately decided that the current option would be the most cost effective in the long run, Cook said. He argued the scope of the program has already been reduced to be “the lowest cost life extension program that the meets military needs.”

Feinstein said she appreciated Cook’s response, but said she was nonetheless concerned that “virtually every” nuclear weapons program is facing cost overruns. “It’s a very sobering thing to me because I’m of the school that doesn’t believe we need all these nuclear weapons,” she said.

In an interview with Global Security Newswire, Feinstein stopped short of suggesting she would look to legislatively force the administration to cut costs and simplify its approach to refurbishing the B-61.

“That’s very hard for somebody like me because I don’t know what the simplified version would be for the B-61 so I have to take at face value what the experts tell me,” Feinstein said. “You could ask me another question: do we need the number of B-61s, do we need the number of nuclear weapons we have now -- my answer is clearly no.”

Arms reductions beyond what the United States has already agreed to in the New START treaty with Russia will also likely have to wait, however, Feinstein said. While the Obama administration has said it hopes for further cuts covering strategic, tactical and reserve weapons, Moscow has indicated any deal would be dependent on compromise over U.S. ballistic missile defense efforts.

“I think that’s something that has to be negotiated with the Russians … but that’s a way’s off,” she said. “In the meantime we need to see that these weapons are able to function – the irony is that they’re all based on this theory of mutual destruction that we’re never going to use them.”

Feinstein told GSN she did not yet have an estimate for when her budget bill would be released.

During the hearing, Feinstein said her “biggest concern with the NNSA budget” was what she described as “unwarranted and drastic cut to the nonproliferation budget” at a time when funding for nuclear weapons programs was increasing.

Under the Obama administration’s fiscal 2014 spending plan, the “core nonproliferation budget would be $1.884 billion, which is a cut of 18 percent, or $417 million from fiscal 2013 levels,” Feinstein noted. At the same time, the administration is seeking $7.87 billion for weapons activities, a $654 million boost from two years ago.

The senator said the budget request is inconsistent with both the Obama administration’s labeling the threat of nuclear terrorism as a top national security priority and the president’s vow to lock down all vulnerable atomic materials during a high-profile 2009 speech in Prague.

“To me it’s a total backing away from a major commitment,” Feinstein said. “People say one thing and do another.”

Feinstein lauded the administration’s nonproliferation accomplishments during the last four years but said “so much more needs to be done.”

“More than 1,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium are sitting in a handful of countries, large quantities of plutonium are still at risk and over 100 reactors still need to be converted to low-enriched uranium,” Feinstein said. “Further, thousands of unused radiological sources here at home are insecure and can be used for dirty bombs and there are still international borders that are vulnerable to radiological smuggling.”

Anne Harrington, NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, said the United States is trying to partner with other nations to complete its goal of converting reactors from highly enriched uranium to less risky low-enriched uranium.

“Russia for example, is taking much more responsibility itself for the conversion of its own reactors,” Harrington said. “About 70 of the remaining reactors to be converted are in Russia,” which she said has committed to completing its first conversion by the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit.

Harrington told Feinstein the administration is establishing target dates for securing international sources of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Although NNSA programs fund some domestic security projects, she put the responsibility to secure U.S. radiological sources largely on private industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office for lax regulation in that mission.

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