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"Forget the Rest" blog

Excerpts and a Very Quick Review of the Report accompanying the
Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, FY2006

May 20, 2005 version, Greg Mello with assistance from Emily Strabbing

During the week of May 9, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee completed its markup of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) proposed FY06 nuclear weapons budget.  This past week, the full House Appropriations Committee released the Report accompanying its markup. 

Overall, the committee proposes a 6.8% cut in nuclear weapons (“Weapons Activities”) spending for FY06, or a little over 10% in inflation-corrected dollars. 

The main themes of interest in this Report are, in rough and cursory form, roughly those shown below.  A few key passages from the text are also supplied under each theme.  A table summarizing the funding levels proposed in relation to FY05 funding and to FY06 funds requested is available separately. 

The Committee’s views are obviously not, in this exact form, those of Congress as a whole.  Financially, they must be reconciled with a corresponding markup from Senator Domenici’s Energy and Water Subcommittee (which has not yet happened).  In terms of program authorization, these proposals must be reconciled to some extent with the views of the House and Senate Armed Services committees.  Still, there is little doubt that the report expresses the views of many House members active on these issues, both Democrats and Republicans, and these ideas are a very important contribution not just to congressional deliberations but to national and international debate as well. 

These comments are unusual in that the Committee, frustrated for many years with the poor direction, poor management, and gross wastefulness that defines much of the nuclear weapons complex, is proposing to re-ground the nuclear weapons program on what they perceive as a more pragmatic and responsible footing.  Regardless of whether one agrees with them or not, these comments are quite intelligent.  Little of comparable substance has come from Congress regarding nuclear weapons in many years. 

In some ways the most interesting aspects of this Report are its relationship to, and implications for, civil society initiatives, and to society’s moral and legal norms affecting nuclear weapons.  This is not the place to discuss these matters in any depth, but I (Greg) want to suggest one thesis: there is a latent and fruitful common ground in both Congress and society regarding nuclear weapons policy, and the intellectual, moral, and political exploration of this common ground is being neglected by most politicians and most non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academics working in this field in the U.S. 

This common ground involves, in the words of the Committee, a “dramatically smaller nuclear stockpile in the near future.”  It is premised on the idea that nuclear weapons have a limited, or perhaps a very limited, utility. [1]

1. A new paradigm is proposed for the nuclear weapons program, revolving around the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), which is to be the centerpiece of a new “Sustainable Stockpile Initiative” (SSI).  The narrative of “science-based stockpile stewardship” is left behind.  Integral with this redirection, the Committee calls for a consolidated and more efficient nuclear weapons complex to decrease costs and provide for better security.

The Committee begins by saying that much of the funding provided under the Weapons Activities budget line is ill-spent.

The budget request for direct stockpile support by weapon tail number is only ten percent of the total Weapons Activities request.  Too much of the remaining 90 percent of the budget request support a residual Cold War capacity within the weapons complex which is not needed for the long term sustainable stockpile. (p. 127)

What follows is the first clear congressional or executive branch articulation of an alternative paradigm for U.S. nuclear weapons programs and facilities in a more than a decade.

The Committee is supportive of the Administration taking an accelerated approach to implement a new  nuclear weapons paradigm that ensures the continued moratorium on nuclear testing and results in a dramatically smaller nuclear weapons stockpile in the near future.  The RRW weapons will be designed for ease of manufacturing, maintenance, dismantlement, and certification without nuclear testing, allowing the NNSA to transition the weapons complex away from a large expensive Cold War relic into a smaller, more efficient modern complex.  A more reliable replacement warhead will allow long-term savings by phasing out the multiple redundant Cold War warhead designs that require maintaining multiple obsolete production technologies to maintain the older warheads.  The committee’s qualified endorsement of the RRW initiative is based on the assumption that a replacement weapon will be designed only as a re-engineered and remanufactured warhead of an existing weapon system in the stockpile.  The committee does not endorse the RRW concept as the beginning of a new production program intended to produce new warhead designs or produce new weapons for any military mission beyond the current deterrent requirements.  The committee’s support of the RRW concept is contingent on the intent of the program being solely to meet the current military characteristics and requirements of the existing stockpile.

            Sustainable Stockpile Initiative.- The Committee views the RRW initiative as part of a larger Sustainable Stockpile Initiative.  The end of the Cold War left the DOE [Department of Energy] production complex awash in special nuclear material and excess weapons and weapons parts with no additional mission requirement.  The post-9/11 threat environment has made providing safeguards and security for these old warheads and excess materials a serious security liability and a seemingly unlimited budget liability.  The Committee expects the Department to develop an integrated RRW implementation plan that challenges the complex to produce a RRW certifiable design while implementing an accelerated warhead dismantlement program and an infrastructure reconfiguration proposal that  maximizes special nuclear material consolidation.  The Committee recognizes all of these program initiatives implemented together with the SEAB [Secretary of Energy Advisory Board] Infrastructure Task Force recommendations as the beginning of a responsible infrastructure for maintaining the future nuclear stockpile.  The Committee directs the Secretary of Energy to establish a Federal Advisory committee on the Reliable Replacement Warhead initiative and to advise on implementation of recommendations stemming from Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure Study. (p. 128)

One of several reasons for this change is that, in the Committee’s view, Stockpile Stewardship, invented in 1994 and funded since in 1995, isn’t working.  (Many of us predicted its denouement ten years ago along more or less the lines it has been failing since then.  If the current direction is continued, there is much more failure and scandal still ahead, unless the failures can be kept effectively secret.  Much failure and scandal are already publicly known but not publicly reported, so there is no accountability and the problems continue.)

“…Congressional testimony by NNSA officials is beginning to erode the confidence of the committee that the Science-based Stockpile Stewardship is performing as advertised. (p. 133)


The Committee recommendation recognizes the Department’s inability to achieve the promises of the Stockpile Stewardship effort and redirects ASCI [Advanced Simulation and Computing] funding to maintain current life extension production capabilities pending the initiation of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. (pp. 133-134)

The weapons complex is replete with derelict and often contaminated facilities that are being left for later disposition, and the Committee seems to imply – if this is not reading too much into the language used – that the funds provided for disposition of these facilities ($50 million last year) are not being used for actual physical removal of these hazards. 

The Committee directs that not less than $30,000,000 of the facilities and infrastructure funding in fiscal year 2006 be used to dispose of excess facilities. (pp. 136-137)

2. The Committee requests that significantly greater sums be applied to increasing the physical security of the nuclear weapons complex in the short run, with consolidation of facilities and nuclear materials the key to lowering costs in the long run.

Much could be said about the lack of physical security of the weapons complex, and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has done an admirable job of doing so (see:  The Committee takes these problems seriously because they are real.  They recommend a two-phase solution: first apply more manpower in critical areas and meanwhile consolidate facilities and materials to save money in the outyears.

Additional manpower is only a stopgap solution to address the security concerns throughout the weapons complex if the Department hopes to have any resources remaining to execute the program. (p. 137)

3. The Committee wants a “dramatically smaller nuclear stockpile in the near future” and requests that the savings appear immediately in the Stockpile Life Extension and related programs.

The above quote was cited earlier, from p. 128.  The next page explains how this goal is meant to affect FY06 funding.

The committee expects a rebaselined [stockpile] life extension program plan by weapons type, a Reliable Replacement Warhead program plan, and a Warhead Dismantlement plan that, taken together, will provide reliable nuclear deterrence with post-2025 stockpile significantly smaller that the 2012 Nuclear Stockpile levels committed to in the Moscow Treaty and specified in the revised Nuclear Stockpile Plan.  The current Life Extension Plans will be scoped back to lower levels and the resources will be redeployed to support the Sustainable Stockpile Initiative. (p. 129)

4. The Committee does not want new nuclear military warhead capability, including the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP).  The Committee says RNEP detracts from efforts to meet the management challenges facing the nuclear weapons complex.

The committee recommendation provides no funding for RNEP.  The Committee continues to oppose the diversion of resources and intellectual capital away from the more serious issues that confront the management of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, primarily the transformation of the cold War nuclear weapons complex and existing stockpile into a sustainable enterprise.  The committee has been disappointed at the bureaucracy’s adherence to an initiative that threatens Congressional and public support for sustainable stockpile initiatives that will actually provide long-term security and deterrent value for the Nation. (p. 131)

5. The Committee takes several steps to correct fiscal and management issues across the complex and throughout the nuclear weapons program.

In several ways the Committee attempts to exert clearer fiscal and management control over specific programs and over reprogramming authority between programs.  They want to end the practice of multi-hundred-million-dollar, open-ended “campaigns” with no clear goals, cost estimates, completion dates, or interim milestones.  They want to end “Special Projects,” a small ($6.6 million) but intentionally unaccountable funding pool.  They want at least 60% of the money which is being appropriated for programs in Russia to be spent in Russia, rather than in the DOE national labs.

6. The RRW is offered as a potent reason not to decrease the time necessary to conduct a nuclear test.

The initiation of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program designed to provide for the continuance of the existing moratorium on underground nuclear testing by insuring the long term reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile obviates any reason to move to a provocative 18-month test readiness posture.

In other words, if the RRW is supposed to be reliable, why must the U.S. pay the diplomatic and financial costs of an aggressive pre-nuclear testing posture?  One cannot have it both ways – one cannot sell a new common nuclear weapon primary to Congress on the grounds that it is not going to require nuclear testing, and then turn around and ask for money for a possible nuclear test.

7. Any commitment to the large-scale production of plutonium pits is delayed, even as the gradual acquisition of interim manufacturing capacity at LANL is supported.

The Committee commends the Los Alamos National Laboratory for its work restoring the pit production capability to the nuclear weapons production complex.  The Committee continues to oppose the Department’s accelerated efforts to site and begin construction activities on a modern pit facility and urges the Department to continue to concentrate its management attention on meeting the fiscal year 2007 schedule for a certified pit ready for the stockpile. (p. 134)

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility Replacement (CMRR) project at LANL has been sold to the public as a mere “replacement” of another facility – which has not, however, been much used in many years.  Apparently the CMRR is viewed, or has been briefed to the Committee, as adding to the “production capability” of LANL.  The Committee would zero out funding for this project – just as a similar plutonium facility proposed for the exact same location, for the exact same purpose, with the exact same sales pitch, was cancelled in 1990.

Project 04-D-125, Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility Replacement (CMRR), LANL.  The Committee recommends no funding for the CMRR project, a decrease of $55,000,000 from the budget request.  Construction at the CMRR facility should be delayed until the Department determines the long-term plan for developing the responsive infrastructure required to maintain the nation’s existing nuclear stockpile and support replacement production anticipated for the RRW initiative.  The Committee’s recommendation does not prejudge the outcome of the Secretary’s SEAB subcommittee’s assessment of the NNSA weapons complex.  However, the production capabilities proposed in the CMRR will be best located at whatever future production complex configuration the Department determines necessary to support the long term stockpile program. (p. 136)

8. The Mixed Oxide (MOX) nuclear reactor fuel plant is proposed to be put on hold pending resolution of liability issues.

The latest financial data from the Department shows an available prior year balance of over $650,000,000 in the Mixed oxide (MOS) construction project.  The fiscal year 2006 budget request would increase those balances to over $1,000,000,000, yet no nuclear nonproliferation or national security benefits have been realized due to continued program delays. (p. 142)

9. The proposed transfer of environmental “cleanup” responsibilities to NNSA is to be put on hold, and the funding transfer returned to DOE’s Environmental Management (EM) program.

Neither is it clear to me what this accomplishes, except provide a backdoor subsidy to Weapons Activities.  In the mid-1990s, cleanup funds were raided by the nuclear weapons program at LANL; despite protestations from the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management, nothing was done.

As currently proposed, the transfer has the potential for unintentional adverse outcomes for both the weapons mission and cleanup programs.  The Committee will consider future transfer requests when the Department has provided a more extensive, thoughtful justification. (p. 145)

10. The Committee lashes DOE for not following up on congressional requirements to study the cost-effectiveness of its on-site nuclear waste disposal.

Low-level radioactive waste disposal costs.- The Energy and Water-Development Appropriations Act, 2002, directed the Department to prepare analysis of life-cycle costs of disposing of low-level radioactive waste and mixed low-level radioactive waste (LLW/MLLW).  The conference committee was concerned with DOE’s practices for disposal of LLW.  These concerns centered on DOE’s use of federal versus commercial disposal facilities and the life-cycle costs of each option.  The House Committee on Appropriations noted that (1) DOE’s was relying too heavily on its on-site and off-site disposal facilities, inhibiting development of a viable and competitive commercial disposal industry, and (2) commercial disposal facilities may offer DOE the lowest life-cycle cost for waste disposal.  DOE responded with a July 2002 life-cycle cost report to Congress, which specified actions it would take to ensure that sites use life-cycle cost analyses, including justification for expansion or new construction of on-site disposal facilities.  DOE issued guidance in July 2002 directing its field offices to use full “cradle to grave” lifecycle costs and analysis of options in making LLW disposal decisions.  The Committee requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) review the Department’s implementation of using life-cycle analyses to evaluate LLW/MLLW disposal options.  GAO found that DOE sites do not consistently use life-cycle analyses to evaluate LLW/MLLW disposal options, which may be caused by DOE’s ineffective communication and implementation of life cycle cost analysis guidance, and lack of oversight.  GAO found that sites may conduct cost analyses of disposal options for major waste streams or projects, but most analyses did not include all life-cycle cost elements; some sites pursue waste disposal without fully considering alternatives; and DOE sites do not always use life-cycle analyses to evaluate on-site versus off-site disposal options.  The Committee is most concerned with the Department’s response to GAO that rather than relying on life-cycle cost analyses, DOE is relying increasingly on incentive-based contracts to ensure cost-effective decision making.  The Committee could not disagree more. (pp. 145-146)

[1] The breadth of the field on which common ground can be found is created by long-standing and permanent political, moral, legal, technical, and economic realities, to name only the most obvious.

Politically, support for a “dramatically smaller” stockpile is based on public opinion, which would prefer such a policy by a strong supermajority.  This is an inference, but it is a very safe one, drawn from the fact that many polls have shown that a large majority of Americans would prefer complete mutual nuclear disarmament when given a choice of policies, and by the fact that it is U.S. policy, not that of any other country, which has held back mutual nuclear disarmament since 1992.  This U.S. popular opinion persists despite decades of contrary practice and virtually no media attention to such a policy option.

Morally, support for deep cuts in the nuclear arsenal comes from the inherent incompatibility of nuclear threat and use with all moral systems – not to put too fine a point on the matter.

Legally, permanent nuclear possession is likewise insupportable – under the NPT, for starters, but in fact any nuclear possession can only be for the conjoined purposes of nuclear threat and use, both of which have been declared generally illegal by the International Court of Justice in their landmark 1996 decision, and not positively declared legal under any circumstance.  U.S. military manuals blandly assert the conditional legality of nuclear use, while at the same time they tutor officers in widely-accepted laws which would render all realistic nuclear use illegal.

Technically, we might mention only the matter of physical security, the provision of which is a kind of bottomless well at some kinds of nuclear facilities.  For security reasons alone, given the evolution and dispersion of advanced military equipment and tactics, certain activities such as plutonium pit production, if conducted at all, should be most prudently conducted underground.  Provision and operation of underground facilities is expensive.

The cost of a large nuclear stockpile – deployed, perhaps $30 billion per year overall currently; historically, about $100 million per warhead – obviously competes with many other military and domestic initiatives.

To cut the argument short, there is, in other words, a very large political, intellectual, legal and moral space which is being almost entirely neglected in elite U.S. nuclear policy discussions – and because of this, in the U.S. media.  For a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways, limitations on the subjects of legitimate debate have been flowing from the capital outward, which serves the parochial interests of those who wish to limit debate on nuclear weapons – that is, those who want to keep them in large numbers and “improve” them as fast as practicable.  Broadening and deepening the debate, not narrowing it, is of crucial importance.

The present Report, written by a Republican-dominated committee, is one intelligent foray into this largely-unused, largely-uncontested and in many ways incontestable space.  Let us hope that Democrats, we in the NGO community, academics, and journalists can find ways to widen and deepen the nuclear policy debate as well as Republicans have done in this Report.  To do so we must find ways to introduce absent-but-relevant facts and laws, and collectively remind ourselves of long-standing moral norms and traditions transcending us, instead of attempting to narrow legitimate discussion to anyone’s or any group’s notion du-jour of what is relevant.

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