The Senate is poised to approve legislation Thursday that would codify a plan to spend billions of dollars to surge production of key building blocks for new nuclear arms.
The hawkish Senate’s coming move to set a new and more solid requirement for building plutonium cores for atomic weapons is buried deep inside its $750 billion fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill.
At issue is a little-noticed element in a larger set of disputes between the Republican-run Senate and the White House, on the one hand, and the more dovish Democrat-run House, on the other, over the subject of atomic arms.
James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs Senate Armed Services, referred approvingly to the plutonium provision on the Senate floor Tuesday and said: “Our nuclear force is critical to our deterrent posture and in turn to the overall security of the nation and the world.”
Former President Barack Obama’s administration had backed a roughly $1 trillion plan to replace, update or modify the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review produced by President Donald Trump’s administration would go further, and his plan to build more plutonium “pits” — the explosive centers of nuclear warheads and bombs — has quietly become one of several flash points in a largely partisan fight over nuclear weapons.
“One of the more under-the-radar aspects of the  Nuclear Posture Review is that it called for laying the groundwork to grow the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and compete in a new arms race, and a key part of this plan is to seek to produce at least 80 pits per year.” said Kingston Reif, an expert on nuclear weapons with the Arms Control Association. “Plutonium pit production will be one of several House-Senate authorization and appropriations conference issues.”
The newly minted Senate provision would simply require that at least 80 of these pits be produced by 2030. The provision would considerably simplify and firm up current law, which has stood since fiscal 2015 and which merely requires the Energy Department to show for 90 days in 2027 that the government has production capacity sufficient to reach 80 pits.
The Obama administration’s policy was to be capable of producing between 50 and 80 pits by 2030. Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review, like the Senate provision, sets a goal of “at least” 80 pits in 2030.
The Senate bill includes non-binding language indicating that “any further delay to achieving a plutonium sustainment capability to support the planned stockpile life extension programs will result in an unacceptable capability gap to our deterrent posture.”
But critics question whether more pits are needed at all.
Experts’ red flag
The plutonium provision in the Senate’s bill is one of 93 amendments that were inserted without debate into an updated version of the measure, known as the NDAA for national defense authorization act. The Senate is expected to pass the revised legislation later this week.
Graham was not immediately available for comment.
A spokeswoman for Heinrich stressed that the Senate’s NDAA would not greatly alter current law.
But the significance of the amendment has less to do with the extent of its change to current law and more to do with its divergence from the House’s direction on the issue and its deviation from what leading experts say is achievable.
The United States used to produce up to 2,000 pits a year at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver but stopped production in 1989 and has only haltingly resumed it since.
The Institute for Defense Analysis, a federally funded research organization, reported in April on a plan hatched in 2016 to resume pit production. The IDA found that the U.S. government is likely to fall short of the 80-pit goal by 2030. The institute’s study found “no historical precedent” for creating such a capability essentially from scratch in just over a decade.
The experts advised the government to instead start by producing 30 pits at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to first gain the confidence needed to “eventually” produce 80 pits.
On top of the 30 pits that would be produced at Los Alamos, administration officials want to produce the other 50 pits at a re-purposed Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Reif, of the Arms Control Association says the institute’s report makes clear that the goal of 80 pits by 2030 is an “unexecutable fantasy.”
What’s more, he argues, producing 80 new pits is not necessary, because the government already has thousands of excess pits with decades of service life left.
The Senate Armed Services Committee was concerned enough about the institute’s findings that its report on the policy bill requires Defense and Energy Department officials who oversee the nuclear arsenal to brief the committee by December on “possible options to mitigate these risks.”
Notwithstanding these concerns, the Senate’s NDAA would authorize the full $712 million requested by the administration in fiscal 2020 for surging plutonium pit production up to 80 pits.
The debate, it seems, is less about the advisability of producing 30 pits at Los Alamos and more about wisdom of adding 50 more at Savannah.
Both Heinrich and Graham are looking to lock into law the target of 80 pits, but South Carolina would benefit more from the Senate’s approach, according to John Isaacs, senior fellow at the Council for a Livable World, an arms control group.
“Building 80 plutonium pits per year is totally unnecessary and instead a gift to South Carolina voters,” Isaacs said.
By contrast, House authorizing and appropriations bills would adhere to what the IDA advised.
The House’s NDAA would authorize just $471 million of the requested $712 million and would repeal the current requirement for 80 pits.
Instead, the House authorizing bill would enact non-binding language urging that the administration start with 30 pits as a goal.
“It is the sense of Congress that the National Nuclear Security Administration should prioritize achieving production of 30 pits per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory and ensure that efforts to design and construct a second site do not divert resources, including personnel and funding, from Los Alamos National Laboratory,” the House NDAA says.
Likewise, the House-passed Energy-Water spending measure, which was approved last week in a legislative package with three other money bills, also provides only $471 million for pit work.
The House Appropriations report also notes that “the NNSA has not provided the current cost, scope, and schedule to meet plutonium mission needs as directed in the fiscal year 2019 Act” and it “directs the NNSA to promptly provide this information to the Committee not later than 30 days after enactment of this Act.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to mark up its Energy-Water bill.
The cost of trying to reach the 80-pit goal is likely to approach $1 billion a year, according to a January report from the Congressional Budget Office, whose experts stressed that their estimate is “very uncertain.”
It is a cost that some in Congress do not think the NNSA should pay.
“As a recent Institute for Defense Analyses study noted, achieving this goal will be extremely challenging, and plans to build two sites at the same time may put the entire plutonium effort at risk,” said Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper, chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, just before the panel marked up its version of the NDAA earlier this month. “We must set NNSA up for success, minimize risks and avoid wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.”
Besides the plutonium plan, a so-far more contentious element of Trump’s nuclear plan is the program to modify one type of submarine-launched nuclear warhead, known as the W76-2, so it packs less explosive yield than most other nuclear warheads. Critics say the W76-2 could further lower the threshold for nuclear war but supporters say it is needed to respond credibly to Russia. Also new in Trump’s blueprint is a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile.
These new programs would add a total of about $17 billion over a decade, the CBO said, including $9 billion for 30 more pits than Obama wanted.
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