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Nuclear Security and Omnibus Legislation: What's Up and What's Down

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

F-16 fighters fly over the Netherlands in June. The U.S. Congress in an omnibus spending bill unveiled this week cut funds to assess equipping a replacement aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with the B-61 nuclear bomb. F-16 fighters fly over the Netherlands in June. The U.S. Congress in an omnibus spending bill unveiled this week cut funds to assess equipping a replacement aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with the B-61 nuclear bomb. (Michel Porro/Getty Images)

The spending bill the House passed on Wednesday includes a boost for nuclear weapons and a nonproliferation funding cut -- but it’s not quite so simple.

A close read of the omnibus bill for fiscal 2014 appropriations shows that while the U.S. nonproliferation budget remains down from fiscal 2013 levels, some efforts to lock down dangerous nuclear materials actually could receive more funding than expected.

And while nuclear-weapons spending overall is on the rise, the bill would cut back some of the more controversial initiatives to modernize atomic warheads in the U.S. arsenal.

On the nonproliferation side, the legislation would provide $1.9 billion, $289 million less than Congress approved for fiscal 2013.

The National Nuclear Security Administration's Global Threat Reduction Initiative -- which aims to lock down dangerous nuclear materials and wean foreign reactors off of bomb-grade uranium -- would receive $442 million under the omnibus bill -- $18 million less than Congress appropriated in fiscal 2013, but $17 million more than the administration requested.

The increase above the administration's request appears to be a compromise between Senate appropriators -- who looked to boost threat-reduction funding even more -- and House lawmakers, who had sought to cut the program overall as compared to the administration's request. Had the House gotten its way, only overseas GTRI programs would have received a funding boost, while its domestic efforts would have been cut.

Senate appropriators raised concerns that the threat-reduction initiative so far had "only installed security upgrades at 1,500 civilian buildings, or about 18 percent, that have high-priority, vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials." The administration's proposed cuts could cause the program's previously stated goal of securing 85,000 such buildings by 2025 to slip 20 years, out to 2044, senators feared.

Arms-control advocates raised similar concerns, particularly after radioactive materials that could have been used to make a dirty bomb were stolen in Mexico last month.

The semiautonomous Energy Department agency's international materials protection and cooperation activities would receive $419 million -- $50 million more than the Obama administration requested. These activities include the Second Line of Defense program, which installs radiation-detection equipment at foreign border crossings, seaports and airports.

Some lawmakers and arms-control advocates have criticized the Obama administration in recent years for proposing deep cuts to the Second Line of Defense program. The detractors raised concerns that the program's previously stated goal of equipping 650 sites in 30 countries and 100 seaports by 2018 could slip if the budget cuts were realized.

NNSA deputy administrator Anne Harrington told Global Security Newswire in August that those goals "have been adjusted" following a broad review of the program, but did not provide specifics.

Nuclear-weapons activities, meanwhile, would receive an overall boost under the omnibus bill. NNSA weapons activities would get a total of $7.8 billion, $874 million more than Congress allotted in fiscal 2013.

But arms control advocates are lauding notable restrictions the legislation puts on controversial warhead-refurbishment plans.

For instance, while the omnibus bill would fully fund NNSA work on extending the life of B-61 gravity bombs stationed in Europe, it would provide only half of what the administration requested for the Defense Department's share of the work. The administration sought $67 million for DOD work on a controversial new tail kit for the B-61 that could improve its precision, but the legislation would provide only $34 million.

In addition, the bill would not allocate $10 million that the Pentagon had requested to assess furnishing the F-35A joint strike fighter with the capability to drop the B-61 bombs.

The legislation also calls on the Energy secretary to submit a report to Congress that would include "a full description of alternatives considered" for the current B-61 refurbishment plan 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."

Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, called the mandate for the report "a tough, much-needed provision."

The B-61 "program is hardly out of the woods yet," Reif told GSN. "Senate appropriators continue to rightly express concerns that the proposed B-61 [life-extension effort] is not the lowest-cost, lowest-risk option that meets military and life-extension requirements."

Senate appropriators had initially proposed to additionally cut NNSA work on the B-61 by $168 million. Such a move "would substantially delay the overall schedule and could jeopardize the overall effectiveness of the weapon system," Madelyn Creedon, President Obama's nominee to become NNSA principal deputy administrator, argued in response to questions submitted for her confirmation hearing on Thursday.

The omnibus bill does, however, provide only half of what the administration sought for replacement of the W-78 nuclear warhead for Air Force ground-based ballistic missiles -- cutting the program to $38 million, down from the requested $72 million.

Lawmakers have raised concerns that the administration's plan to replace both W-78 intercontinental ballistic missile warheads and the submarine-based W-88 Trident missile warheads with a single interoperable warhead might be more expensive than simply refurbishing the existing weapons. Defense authorization legislation Congress approved last month requires a cost-comparison study between the two approaches.

The White House said in a statement of administration policy on Tuesday that it supports the new omnibus spending legislation, which would fund the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year. A Senate vote could happen as early as this week.

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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