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Lawmakers Approved Half of $120M Reprogramming Request; House Appropriators Sign Off Still Needed

The House and Senate Armed Services committees, once the most outspoken critics of the Obama Administration’s plan to defer work on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility, have partially signed off on a National Nuclear Security Administration request to reprogram money for a new plutonium strategy, though one key hurdle remains before the agency can spend the money. While the House Armed Services Committee authorized the NNSA to spend $50 million of the $120 million reprogramming request and their Senate counterparts authorized $60 million, approval from the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee remains up in the air. The subcommittee initially gave its approval for the reprogramming request in the fall, but rescinded its support in its version of the Fiscal Year 2014 Energy and Water Appropriations Act.

In the wake of the CMRR-NF deferral, Los Alamos National Laboratory proposed a new strategy to maintain the nation’s plutonium capabilities based on a “modular” approach that would include smaller—and cheaper—facilities. An initial NNSA examination of the new strategy delivered promising results, leading the agency to embark on a more detailed study and business case analysis of the approach. NNSA Defense Programs chief Don Cook acknowledged that gaining the support of the House and Senate Armed Services committees was a significant victory for the agency. “The $120 million is not released yet but close. There is committee support for releasing half of it in short order with some conditions for the other half,” he said this week on the sidelines of the “Primer” conference at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

‘Insufficient and Long-Delayed Progress’ Good Enough

In a July 18 letter to DOE Deputy Chief Financial Officer Alison Doone, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) noted that the Administration is “making progress—albeit insufficient and long-delayed progress—towards answering the concerns” previously raised by the committee. “Due to this progress, the committee has no objection to the Department of Energy reprogramming $50 million of this funding to ensure continued progress at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and continued work to evaluate the so-called modular strategy,” McKeon wrote. The Administration must submit a detailed spending plan to Congress before obligating the funds, McKeon said in his letter.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, attached no strings to his panel’s approval of the first $60 million, and he said the committee will approve the remaining $60 million reprogramming request when NNSA provides a schedule for achieving Critical Decision 0 and Critical Decision 1 for the modular plutonium strategy. The schedule must be provided to the committee by Aug. 30.

McKeon Warns of Impact of Further Delays

In October, McKeon conditioned the House committee’s support of the reprogramming request on answers to a dozen questions related to the strategy and responses on six overdue reports and documents—or a commitment to fully resurrect CMRR-NF. Based on McKeon’s most recent letter, House authorizers have softened that stance and are willing to accept the new plutonium strategy. “The committee expects the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, acting through the Nuclear Weapons Council, to move expeditiously to firmly commit to a permanent solution to the nation’s plutonium needs that meets the requirements of the military and the nuclear stockpile by creating a pit production capacity of 50-80 pits by 2026,” McKeon wrote. “Continued delay in selecting and fully committing to a permanent plutonium strategy will have significant impacts on the nation’s ability to execute warhead life extension programs and provide a responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure.”

The reprogramming money will allow the lab to begin purchasing materials and equipment for its Plutonium Facility and Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, which are to play a larger role in the new plutonium strategy. A small amount of money will go to support the study of the new plutonium approach. “The committee expects this level of funding will enable DOE, for the next several months, to begin carrying out steps towards a permanent plutonium capability for the nation,” McKeon wrote.

Key Admin. Officials Had Pushed for Approval

In an April letter to McKeon and Levin, former acting NNSA chief Neile Miller and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and Nuclear Weapons Council Chairman Frank Kendall said the $120 million reprogramming is needed to further assess the “modular” approach to replacing CMRR-NF’s capabilities and to prepare the RLUOB to play a larger role in small-sample analytical chemistry activities, which had been planned for CMRR-NF. It would also pay for the relocation of material characterization equipment from the lab’s existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building to PF-4, and the evaluation of design options for a material transfer tunnel between PF-4, RLUOB and the “modular” facilities. The “modular” facilities would be single-purpose buildings used for work like plutonium casting, Miller and Kendall wrote.

The officials said $4-6 million of the $120 million reprogramming request was needed for the Nuclear Weapons Council, the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation group, and Los Alamos to explore the “modular” approach this year. “This analysis will address the risks and benefits, pros and cons, and seek initial insights into the cost and schedule of modular acquisition,” the officials wrote. At the time, Miller and Kendall called the reprogramming “critical” to achieving an interim capacity to produce 30 plutonium pits per year by 2021. —Todd Jacobson

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