One might think a nuclear maelstrom is brewing in Congress given some of the rhetoric, but the reality is closer to the proverbial tempest in a teapot.
A major part of the would-be controversy is over the Obama administration’s decision to delay for at least five years construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. If constructed, the building would house researchers conducting analyses on radioactive materials, primarily plutonium and provide storage space for large quantities of this material. It would also free up space at another building at Los Alamos, the Plutonium Facility-4, to enable the lab to expand production capacity for plutonium “pits,” the fissile core of a modern nuclear weapon.
Critics of the delay have been making dire predictions about its implications for the nuclear stockpile, but the administration’s decision was the right one.
Existing facilities can take on the work planned for the replacement nuclear facility to keep U.S. nuclear weapons reliable. In particular, Los Alamos has a brand new radiological lab where much of the analytical work to maintain the stockpile could be conducted. Thanks to a fresh look at nuclear material safety standards, researchers can safely work with four times more plutonium than they had originally planned. Meanwhile, an underutilized federal weapons complex building in Nevada could provide more than enough storage space for radioactive materials.
Finally, and perhaps most important, there is no need for the United States to increase pit production. Looking ahead two decades, the only plausible rationale to increase pit production capacity above the current level would be to support the upcoming life extension programs for W78 and W88 warheads. The decision on whether new pits will be necessary, however, is not scheduled until 2021. And even if the two warheads do need new pits, the existing plutonium facility at Los Alamos could expand production without building the replacement nuclear facility.
Any of these options would be far cheaper than building the replacement nuclear facility. As of 2010, the cost estimate was as much as $6 billion, when the design was only 45 percent complete. The actual cost would likely be significantly higher.
Nevertheless, administration critics are shouting the sky is falling. But their most prominent charge, that the president broke a promise he made tied to the New START arms reduction agreement, does not hold up to scrutiny. It was Congress, led by the Republican-controlled House, that first eliminated funding for construction of the replacement nuclear facility in last year’s budget, not the administration. So, when confronted with the implications of the 2011 Budget Control Act, the administration decided this year to prioritize construction of the Uranium Processing Facility, another multibillion-dollar project that will handle the nation’s weapons work on highly enriched uranium, and put the replacement nuclear facility on hold.
Administration critics cite a 2010 planning document, known as the 1251 report, as if it were a sacred text. That document includes estimated funding levels for what the administration has proposed to maintain and modernize the stockpile and nuclear weapons complex. But now that the administration has identified other, much less expensive alternatives to the replacement nuclear facility, it can reduce its expenditures and still maintain a safe, secure, reliable nuclear stockpile. That, after all, should be the bottom line, not some projected budget number.
Fortunately, some in Congress have put partisan politics aside. In April, in a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, appropriations committees in the House and Senate supported delaying construction.
Despite that outcome, Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee last week not only provided funding for construction and mandated that it begin as soon as possible, they transferred responsibility for the project from the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees all work on nuclear weapons, to the Department of Defense, which does not want the project and supported the five-year delay. Perhaps most astounding, the committee Republicans prohibited spending any money on alternatives to the new nuclear facility, even if they are more effective and less expensive.
This week the defense authorization bill will come to the House floor, where attempts to overturn these actions are possible. In a budget-conscious Congress, it makes little sense to authorize an unneeded $6 billion project when that decision has already been trumped by the appropriations decision of their Republican colleagues.
It’s all over but the shouting.
Stephen Young is a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.