U.S. Senator Presses Nuclear Agency on Lack of Future Funding Details

A worker handles a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead. Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on Wednesday questioned why the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget request omits mandated future-year spending projections for most nuclear weapons efforts (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).
A worker handles a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead. Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on Wednesday questioned why the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget request omits mandated future-year spending projections for most nuclear weapons efforts (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel chairman on Wednesday questioned why the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration has withheld future funding figures for key atomic complex programs in its fiscal 2013 budget request, contrary to a reporting requirement in law (see GSN, Feb. 17).

“The FY-13 budget submission … for the weapons program didn’t contain a five-year projection,” Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) complained at a Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing.

The projections, responded NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino, would not come until “later this year.”  His written testimony had set the stage for the verbal exchange, stating with minimal elaboration: “The administration will develop out-year funding levels based on actual programmatic requirements at a later date.”

The White House has requested $11.5 billion in fiscal 2013 for the agency, a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department.  The National Nuclear Security Agency is charged with keeping the nation’s nuclear arsenal safe, secure and effective without explosive testing.

Of the total funds, $7.6 billion would go toward NNSA weapons activities, according to the spending plan. The weapons budget for fiscal 2013, which begins on Oct. 1, would represent a $363 million uptick from this year’s spending level.

For the agency's nonproliferation and naval reactor programs, NNSA budget charts show spending numbers for each of the next five fiscal years.  However, future-year amounts for defense programs, safeguards and security, and weapons activities after 2013 are left blank.

The fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, signed into law on Dec. 31, actually went beyond requiring the five-year projections in calling for an unclassified 10-year budget blueprint.  It also demanded year-by-year program plan details for nuclear weapons maintenance and modernization.

The legislation, H.R. 1540, said the program and spending report should be submitted “together with the budget” request for 2013, which the Obama administration sent to Capitol Hill on Feb. 13.

On Wednesday, the subcommittee leader asked D’Agostino to account for the lapse in meeting the reporting requirement, which remains in place for every NNSA budget request through fiscal 2019.

“Can you give us some idea of how this happened?” asked Nelson, a moderate Democrat who announced on Dec. 27 that he will not run for re-election this year.  “Or how this would be consistent with what we were seeking a year ago?”

D’Agostino said his agency’s work in assembling its fiscal 2013 budget request was largely complete by the time the 2012 defense bill passed Congress late last year.  That left little time to sort out detailed 10-year plans, he suggested.

In addition, the NNSA head noted, last year’s Budget Control Act imposed spending caps on defense programs that could significantly affect the agency’s weapon-related programs in as-yet unknown ways (see GSN, March 8).

Nelson also said that “in some cases where [the budget] did [specify future-year budget figures], such as for naval reactors or nonproliferation, it simply indexed the out-years by inflation.”  In other words, the NNSA budget documents projected flat fiscal 2013 funding levels for those programs into each future year, with only economic corrections.

This approach makes it “impossible to satisfy the modernization report which was required under Section 1043 of last year’s defense authorization,” the senator said.

“The details of how the out-years will look [are] being worked on,” D’Agostino said.  “We have a joint team with the Defense Department to look at this.”

The two agencies must sort out how the Budget Control Act -- which could roughly double the $490 billion in reductions the Pentagon has already taken in its 10-year spending plans -- might affect the nuclear sector (see GSN, Jan. 6). 

The Obama administration in late 2010 pledged to boost nuclear complex spending by $85 billion over the next decade.  However, there is debate over whether the deficit-reduction legislation enacted since then should allow a dip into the nuclear spending sector. 

Some Republican lawmakers are already taking the president to task for trimming nuclear modernization plans in the new budget request from an earlier-projected $7.9 billion down to $7.6 billion (see GSN, March 9).

"Despite our need for fiscal austerity -- and there is a need -- shortchanging nuclear modernization at a time when we face threats and uncertainty ahead and may even grow is simply not acceptable,” Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said at the hearing.  “I don't know exactly what the amount of money [is that] we need.  But the amount that was committed [in 2010] is not provided for in this budget.”

Nelson countered that view in a prepared statement: “Realistically,” in that the Obama nuclear spending pledge was made “nine months before the Budget Control Act became law, falling 4 percent short of the $7.9 billion target is reasonable given the fiscal reality facing us today.”

“There’s a lot of concern, of course [about] … both the NNSA and the Department of Defense having some challenges,” D’Agostino said.  “Of course we have challenges.  We have a very significant fiscal environment and we have a tremendous amount of work to do.”

He added that some of the work involves negotiating across federal agencies.

“The teams are working to get essentially an agreement sometime this summer,” D’Agostino said.  “The question would be exactly how much detail do we put into it.”

His organization is eager to nail down future budget details “because, of course, we need it to get that FY-14 budget built,” D’Agostino said, calling that a “key budget” for the Pentagon and the nuclear agency to be “all on the same page on.”

“We’re together on FY-13, we’re working the out-years together, and we want to get this completed because we know we have a commitment to Congress in order to give you the 1043 report,” he said, referring to the section of the authorization bill that demands the budget document.

Critics charge the delay will deny lawmakers crucial information they need as Congress moves ahead this spring on authorizing and appropriating NNSA and Defense funds for nuclear-weapon programs.

“How will Congress know what it is paying for, when at the same time the NNSA is absolutely notorious for cost overruns?” Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in comments e-mailed to Global Security Newswire this week.

As an example, he cited the administration’s 2013 budget request of $369 million for extending the service life of the B-61 nuclear gravity bomb, a $136 million increase over this year’s appropriations despite a two-year slowdown in the program.

The nuclear agency has not yet completed a feasibility study for the overhaul project and had “previously projected that level of funding would not be reached until [fiscal] 2015,” Coghlan said.  “Now clearly the rate of spending is being dramatically increased, and total program costs will likely explode, as well.  The danger is that congressional funding decisions for NNSA nuclear weapons programs will become more rigid before total program costs are known.”

March 15, 2012
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WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel chairman on Wednesday questioned why the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration has withheld future funding figures for key atomic complex programs in its fiscal 2013 budget request, contrary to a reporting requirement in law.

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