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Senate Appropriators Continue to Raise Questions About B61 LEP in Markup Docs

Todd Jacobson
NS&D Monitor

Senate appropriators fully funded the Obama Administration’s $643 million Fiscal Year 2015 request for refurbishment work on the B61 bomb, but according to documents finally released by the panel this week, it appears they did so grudgingly, and with considerable reservations. Led by Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), the panel opposed the refurbishment program in years passed, with Feinstein suggesting the $8.2 billion program represented a “Cadillac” when a more economical model was necessary.

And as the panel matched the Administration’s funding request for FY 2015, it said it was concerned about the price tag of the refurbishment effort—even as it sought cuts to other warhead programs, like the zeroed out cruise missile warhead refurbishment. “The Committee believes lower cost options were available that met military requirements,” the panel said, according to the report accompanying the subcommittee’s version of the Fiscal Year 2015 Energy and Water Appropriations Act. “The Committee remains concerned about the affordability of this program, especially with likely sequester cuts starting again in fiscal year 2016.”

Panel Concerned NNSA Has Boxed Itself in on B61

The major concern, the panel said, is that the NNSA has boxed itself in with the design it has chosen, known as Option 3B. There is little room for changing the program if there are future funding cuts, the panel said, noting that the First Production Unit for the bomb had already slipped six months, to FY 2020, from FY 2013 projections. “Given the highly integrated nature of the current B61 Mod 12 design, NNSA has no alternatives to the current design option, known as Option 3B, that would allow it to recuperate lost time and stay within the current budget estimate of $8,200,000,000,” the panel said. “The only choice NNSA has is delaying the first production unit and incurring more costs.”

That could put other programs in jeopardy, the panel said. “The Committee is concerned that increasing costs for the B61 Mod 12 will come at the expense of other nuclear modernization priorities, such as modernizing aging infrastructure, and critical nonproliferation activities to combat nuclear terrorism,” the panel said.

Release of Docs Signal End to Markup Process

The full Senate Appropriations Committee had planned to mark up the energy spending bill in June, but cancelled the markup due to a disagreement between Democrats and Republicans over a controversial amendment that would scuttle new carbon emissions regulations on power plants. The release of the bill and accompanying report this week signals that Senate leaders have given up hope of marking up the bill, and will use the proposed markup during conference negotiations with the House in several months.

Overall, the bill provides $8.3 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons program, matching the Obama Administration’s request, and $1.98 billion for its nonproliferation account, a $422.8 million increase over the Administration’s $1.55 billion request. As previously reported, the committee provided $400 million for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, nearly double the Administration’s request ( see related story), and matched the Administration’s $335 million request for funding on the Uranium Processing Facility project.

NNSA Urged to Explore Plutonium Options at Los Alamos

The bill also matches the Administration’s $259 million request for the ongoing W76 refurbishment, and provides $35.7 million to equip Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building and $3.8 million to begin studying a new modular approach to help meet the lab’s plutonium capabilities. The committee said the agency should thoroughly vet alternatives for modernizing Los Alamos’s plutonium capabilities before moving forward with the modular approach, and it urged the agency to explore options brought up in a February Congressional Research Service report that suggested existing facilities could be used to help the NNSA meet its plutonium capabilities affordably and quickly. “Before proposing the construction of laboratory modules, the Committee believes NNSA must first conduct a realistic and thorough assessment of alternatives which explores the use of existing facilities across DOE and NNSA labs and sites to meet plutonium mission needs,” the committee said.

If modules are found to be the best approach, the committee said the NNSA should establish a Red Team similar to the group that studied the UPF project to “determine whether NNSA’s preferred option is the most cost effective and time-sensitive.”

Committee Rips NNSA on Interoperable Warhead Spending

Like its approach on the cruise missile warhead, the committee also didn’t provide funding for the W78/W88 interoperable warhead—the Administration didn’t request any money after deferring the effort—and blasted the Administration’s approach to the project, suggesting that it had wasted $91 million. “The majority of the design work cannot be used in the future because non-nuclear components and other technologies currently available will be obsolete and new designs must be considered,” the committee said.

The committee noted that the Navy was not participating in studies and design work on the interoperable warhead concept because it had other priorities, leaving the Air Force alone to work with the NNSA, and it directed the agency to work with the Nuclear Weapons Council and the military to ensure that Air Force and Navy programs are properly aligned for future integrated warhead efforts.

NIF Fully Funded, but Status Report on Ignition Requested

While the panel fully funded $329 million in request work on the National Ignition Facility and inertial confinement fusion activities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and said it supported the current balanced experimental plan at the facility, it said it wanted an update on the facility’s prospects for ignition. It directed the agency to submit a report to Congress within
90 days of the bill’s enactment on “whether the likelihood of achieving ignition on NIF has increased since December 2012 and the level of confidence NIF will achieve ignition by December 2015.”

It also prohibited the NNSA from using plutonium in shots at NIF. “If NNSA makes a decision to use plutonium at NIF for future experiments, the Committee directs the Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs to submit a written notification to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees with an explanation as to the unique benefits of conducting plutonium experiments at NIF along with estimated costs and required changes to NIF to handle plutonium in a safe manner,” the panel said.

Subcritical Test Plan Requested

The committee also matched the Administration’s $49.8 million request to develop an “enhanced radiographic system” to diagnose subcritical experiments at the Nevada National Security Site’s U1a facility, but it said it wanted the NNSA to submit the conceptual design of the chosen technology and preliminary cost estimate for construction and operation before using the money. According to the Administration’s budget request, the new system will support modernized surety, pit reuse and
remanufacturing options for life extension programs as well as assessments of the existing stockpile.

The committee also directed the agency to submit a 10-year plan for subcritical experiments to Congress within 120 days of the enactment of the spending bill that includes the “benefits of these experiments for resolving fundamental weapons physics issues and supporting future life extension programs and estimated funding by fiscal year for subcritical component manufacturing, experiments, and data evaluation.”

The committee also said it supports plan to explore additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, applications for nuclear weapons and broader national security missions and directed the agency to produce a 10-year strategic plan for using additive manufacturing in nuclear weapons to “reduce costs and floor space at production facilities while meeting stringent qualification requirements for using a new manufacturing technique.”

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