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Committee Chairman Outlines Concerns, Conditions Support on Answers to List of Questions, Concerns

The House Armed Services Committee, an outspoken advocate of the Administration’s deferred Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility, isn’t signing off on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s request to reprogram $120 million for an alternate plutonium strategy and is continuing to suggest that widespread management changes are necessary across the weapons complex. In a letter to acting Department of Energy Deputy Chief Financial Officer Joanne Choi obtained by NW&M Monitor, HASC Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) ripped the Administration for deferring construction of the CMRR-NF, the decision that has prompted DOE to ask to reprogram funds so it could pursue an alternate plutonium strategy. While House and Senate appropriators have signaled support for the alternate plutonium strategy, the House Armed Services Committee joined the Senate Armed Services Committee in opposing the reprogramming request.

But while the Senate panel said it would support the alternate plutonium strategy if the agency kept the CMRR-NF alive, McKeon conditioned the House committee’s support on answers to a dozen questions related to the strategy and responses on six overdue reports and documents—or a commitment to fully resurrect the project. “The committee supports the goal of a responsive and modern nuclear infrastructure and believes a 5+ year deferral of CMRR-NF is a mistake with grave implications for the future of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and overall national security policy,” McKeon wrote. “Modern plutonium science capabilities and the pit production they support are essential for an uncertain future.”

Committee Urges Reevaluation of NNSA

Calling the deferral “hasty” with “poorly understood” impacts that are based on “only the most rudimentary and preliminary analysis,” McKeon urged the Administration—“ at the highest levels”—to reassess the decision to defer the CMRR-NF and consider broader management reforms. Notably, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, authored legislation that was included in the House version of the Fiscal Year 2013 Defense Authorization Act to reform the NNSA, and late last month, he introduced a bill that would have the military provide security at weapons complex sites in the wake of the July 28 security breach at the Y-12 National Security Complex. “Given the atrophied condition of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, now is the time for bold action and outside-the-box thinking to reevaluate everything from the management, budget, and appropriations process for nuclear weapons to the current bifurcated, two-department relationship between those who set nuclear weapons requirements and those who are charged with ensuring they are met,” McKeon wrote. He said the deferral of the project represented evidence that the Administration was backing off of promises made during debate on the New START Treaty. “Most critically, the deferral of CMRR-NF indicates that the administration is no longer pursuing its own policy, as outlined in its April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), to create a responsive and ‘revitalized infrastructure.’”

A High Bar to Clear

The Administration will have a high bar to clear in order to satisfy the committee’s demands. The information being sought by the committee includes requests on 12 issues surrounding CMRR-NF and the alternative plutonium strategy:

— Detailed cost estimates for the alternative strategy and the cost of deferring construction of CMRR-NF; A description of how the alternative strategy would help the lab produce 30 pits per year and the risk to warhead refurbishment efforts if that rate can’t be achieved;
— Risk mitigation plans for if 30 pits are unable to be produced a year or the reuse of pits proves impractical for any future warhead refurbishment efforts;
— A detailed plan to confirm pit reuse is viable for future life extension programs;
— A detailed plan using pit replacement if pit reuse is found to be impractical;
— A description of the deferral of CMRR-NF on pit production capacity and how that might impact life extension options;
— Details of how the $120 million reprogramming request would be spent;
— Details on the consequences of deferring the W78 and W88 life extension programs;
— An explanation of the decision to shut down the CMRR-NF project without Congressional approval;
— Cost and schedule estimates for immediately reconstituting the CMRR-NF project team;
— Details on analysis conducted before Feb. 13, 2012, that supports the CMRR-NF deferral decision; and
— Funding from FY2014 to FY2018 that would be needed if CMRR-NF was restarted.

The committee noted that the agency only asked Los Alamos to study alternative plutonium strategy options on Feb. 13, the day that the Obama Administration released its FY 2013 budget and formally deferred the CMRR-NF project. Given 60 days to study the issue, the lab said its effort should not be a substitute for 10 years of planning. “Fundamentally, NNSA’s path forward for sustaining robust plutonium capabilities is little more than a conceptual aspiration. The committee has been provided with negligible details on all aspects of this plan—and it appears NNSA had few such details itself when the CMRR-NF deferral decision was made,” McKeon wrote.

Additionally, the committee asked for responses on several overdue reports and documents before it said it would act on the reprogramming request, including:

— A detailed site-by-site breakdown of how the NNSA would spend money under the six-month Continuing Resolution that will fund the government through the end of March;
— Necessary funding for the W76 refurbishment program in FY 2013;
— The FY 2013 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan;
— The FY 2013-2017 Future Years Nuclear Security Program; and
— A pair of Congressionally mandated reports on modernizing the weapons complex.

House Dem Speaks Out Against Colleagues

The House decision, however, did not enjoy the support of at least some Democrats on the committee. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Strategic Forces panel, suggested the decision to withhold support for the reprogramming request jeopardized the NNSA’s plutonium sustainment mission. Sanchez was among a contingent of Democrats on the committee that opposed its decision to authorize funding for the project earlier this year and move its management to the Department of Defense. “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,” Sanchez said in a statement to NW&M Monitor. “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 STRATCOM, say we do not need in the near-term. We cannot run the technical or financial risk of delaying a viable, affordable strategy for ensuring the safety, security and reliability of critical warheads.” —Todd Jacobson

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