WASHINGTON -- Senate appropriators are pushing to cut $40 million from an Obama administration bid to fund a pilot uranium enrichment program described as an important contributor to nuclear nonproliferation efforts and maintenance of the nation's nuclear arsenal.
The House of Representatives last week voted to fully fund a "one-time" administration request for $150 million to support the domestic uranium enrichment research, development and demonstration effort under the National Nuclear Security Administration's defense nuclear nonproliferation program. The Senate bill would provide only $110 million to the initiative while matching the House bill's $7.6 billion appropriation for NNSA work to maintain the U.S. nuclear arms complex through the end of this budget year.
The federal government is operating until March 27 under a continuing budget resolution that holds spending across the government at fiscal 2012 levels. Both chambers of Congress have now put forward proposals to keep the government going to Sept. 30.
The Senate-targeted funds would support completion of a two-year effort to install and demonstrate a new generation of uranium enrichment technology at a privately operated facility in Piketon, Ohio.
The administration said the initiative at USEC's American Centrifuge Plant is important to the production of tritium, an isotope necessary in maintaining the nation's arsenal of thermonuclear hydrogen weapons. The United States already generates tritium gas at multiple locations, including the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
The uranium enrichment process can also generate nuclear reactor fuel and higher-purity fissile material for nuclear bombs.
"Having a domestic capacity for uranium enrichment has important national security and nonproliferation implications, including discouraging the unnecessary spread of enrichment technology by contributing directly to sustained confidence in the international commercial enrichment market [and] improving the ability to detect proliferant programs," the administration stated in its fiscal 2013 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration.
A spokesman for Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), who heads the Appropriations panel with jurisdiction over the semi-independent Energy Department branch, did not respond by press time to requests to explain the proposed reduction and its anticipated impact on the pilot enrichment effort.
The Senate spending bill appeared set to go to a floor vote this week after GOP legislators lifted a legislative hold, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday. If approved by the upper chamber, the measure would require backing from the House of Representatives before proceeding to the president. A Senate Appropriations Committee staffer on Wednesday said it was still unclear if lawmakers from both chambers would jointly resolve differences between the bills, but U.S. News and World Report said a conference process would take place.
USEC spokesman Paul Jacobson said the advanced gas centrifuge initiative would move forward, regardless of how much funding it ultimately receives in the current budget year.
"The program has been incrementally funded from its start and this is just sort of a continuation of that," Jacobson said on Wednesday. The spokesman declined to speculate on how USEC would respond to funding shortfalls.
The Senate legislation would also increase spending on the Homeland Security Department's Domestic Nuclear Detection Office beyond fiscal 2012 levels. The proposed $318 million appropriation would include $28 million to buy portable radiation sensors for use by DHS personnel; that amount is $20 million more than funding endorsed by last week's House legislation, which holds DNDO spending at levels from the previous budget cycle.
The Senate text would provide $75 million "for research and development of next-generation detection technologies," according to a summary of the legislation. The bill backed by the lower chamber would provide only $40 million for the same activities.
Senate appropriators also proposed $22 million for the Securing the Cities initiative, maintaining program funding at the fiscal 2012 level. The program has focused on deploying nuclear and radioactive material detectors in New York City; the Obama administration last September announced plans to expand the effort to Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif.
Like the House bill, the Senate proposal includes language to grant the Pentagon greater flexibility in apportioning funding cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The 2011 law's sequestration provision took effect on March 1 and requires a $46 billion cut to defense spending planned through Sept. 30.
The new spending authorities would also address warnings that the six-month spending measure now in effect has limited the Pentagon's ability to implement new strategic guidance by freezing spending at fiscal 2012 levels for programs across the Defense Department.