Lawmakers Await Details on Request to Shift Nuclear Complex Funds

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), shown in April, this month said Obama administration officials must respond to a series of demands by his panel before it can decide whether to approve their request to “reprogram” funds originally intended for the construction of a new nuclear weapons facility in New Mexico (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite).
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), shown in April, this month said Obama administration officials must respond to a series of demands by his panel before it can decide whether to approve their request to “reprogram” funds originally intended for the construction of a new nuclear weapons facility in New Mexico (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite).

WASHINGTON -- Key members of Congress await the Obama administration’s response to a list of demands that lawmakers say must be met before they will approve a request to transfer funds originally slated for a nuclear weapons complex project.

At issue is the administration’s controversial plan to delay construction of a new nuclear weapons lab and storage facility in New Mexico. The executive branch now wants to shift funds previously slated for the building initiative to alternative weapons complex projects instead.

The Energy Department on Sept. 13 informed lawmakers that it intended to “reprogram” $120 million in fiscal 2012 funds that Congress had originally appropriated for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The CMRR project is aimed at helping ensure that new and existing plutonium cores would function in nuclear weapons, if need be, in the absence of underground explosive testing. The United States has observed a moratorium on atomic explosive tests since the early 1990s.

Administration officials say the reprogramming is necessary because of its decision earlier this year to delay construction of the CMRR nuclear facility by five years. While the Obama team argued that the postponement would save funds without harming nuclear weapon readiness, the decision received mixed reviews on Capitol Hill, with some lawmakers seeking to proceed on a schedule to complete construction by 2024. However, a six-month budget resolution that Congress approved last month for fiscal 2013 includes no funds for the project.

By law, a major reprogramming of funds cannot be implemented without the approval of all congressional committees with jurisdiction over the issue.

So far, both the House and Senate Armed Service committees have deferred making a decision on the administration’s request, meaning the proposed transfer of funds has effectively been placed on hold. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees also have jurisdiction over the issue, but it only takes one of the four committees to block the administration’s request.

The House Appropriations Committee is also awaiting additional information from the administration before making a decision on the request, according to a committee aide. The Senate Appropriations Committee views the administration's request favorably, but has not officially signed off on it, according to an aide for that panel. The committee aides and other Capitol Hill sources spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

In an Oct. 1 letter, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) says his panel will defer making a decision on the department’s request until it complies with a series of demands.

The administration must provide a “comprehensive description” of how it can produce 30 nuclear weapon pits per year without the CMRR facility, and a “detailed description” of how the delay to CMRR construction will affect W-78 and W-88 warhead life-extension programs, along with other items, according to a copy of McKeon’s letter obtained by Global Security Newswire.

The Air Force uses W-78 warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missile fleet, while the Navy employs W-88s on its Trident D-5 submarine-based ballistic missiles.

McKeon’s demands followed a Sept. 19 letter from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that also deferred making a decision on the administration’s funds-transfer request. Levin suggested his panel would be willing to consider the reprogramming “as long as a portion of the $120 million is utilized to reconstitute” the CMRR nuclear facility plan.

The senator requested a meeting with the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration -- a semi-autonomous arm of the Energy Department that oversees the atomic complex -- to discuss the matter.

So far, the administration has not responded to the lawmakers’ demands, according to a congressional source familiar with the issue. “NNSA has been silent -- totally,” according to the source.

In response to a reporter's query, NNSA spokesman Joshua McConaha said only that administration officials “continue to work with Congress to ensure that the United States has the plutonium capabilities it needs to ensure that our nuclear deterrent is safe, secure and effective.”

According to the administration’s reprogramming request, it would use between $20 million and $25 million of the funds to provide “accelerated readiness and operational start-up activities for the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building,” a recently completed structure also located at Los Alamos. Another $20 million to $25 million would be used to procure additional analytical chemistry equipment for the RLUOB facility.

The Obama team sees these proposed measures as helping address the nuclear weapons complex’s near-term plutonium laboratory and storage needs while the CMRR construction effort remains on ice.

Accelerating the relocation of various management and preparatory abilities from the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building to another Los Alamos structure, known as Plutonium Facility-4 or “PF-4” for short, would absorb another $20 million to $25 million, according to the department’s request last month. Designing “cost-effective material transfer system between RLUOB and PF-4” will utilize the remaining $15 million to $25 million, according to the document.

McKeon has signaled he wants more information, demanding in his letter “detailed dollar figures regarding how the $120 million in funds will be spent if the program is approved.” The House Armed Services Committee believes the decision to delay construction of the CMRR nuclear facility “was hasty,” that “the impacts are poorly understood” and that “the alternative strategy is based only on the most rudimentary and preliminary analysis,” according to his letter.

Democrats on McKeon’s committee disagree with his decision to defer the administration’s request to reprogram the funds, however.

Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, suggested that by deferring the transfer of funds for the administration’s proposed workaround plan, Congress could end up harming nuclear weapons readiness

“I am concerned that the long-term deferral of the funding for the plutonium sustainment strategy may put at risk our ability to meet requirements for increasing pit production capacity in a timely way and for sustaining critical warhead life-extension programs,” she said in a written statement.

“This de-facto lengthy deferral is all the more questionable as it risks delaying a cost-effective path forward identified in place of wasting taxpayer money on a $6 billion plutonium facility that the nuclear weapons laboratories, NNSA, and the Department of Defense, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and [U.S. Strategic Command], say we do not need in the near term,” Sanchez said. “We cannot run the technical or financial risk of delaying a viable, affordable strategy for ensuring the safety, security and reliability of critical warheads.”

October 18, 2012
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WASHINGTON -- Key members of Congress await the Obama administration’s response to a list of demands that lawmakers say must be met before they will approve a request to transfer funds originally slated for a nuclear weapons complex project.

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