Even their beloved nukes don't escape Republican infatuation with cost-cutting

Republicans never met a nuclear weapon they didn’t like, right? Generally, that’s true, but neither are they immune to infatuation with another program that happens to be at odds with nuclear weapons as the national-security policy of last defense. All of a sudden Republicans’ mania for cost-cutting might override the special place they hold in their hearts for “our nuclear deterrent,” as they euphemize nuclear weapons.

On June 15, at the Washington Post, Walter Pincus provided as good an introduction as any to what transpired.

. . . lawmakers are cutting into the funds that the Obama administration had pledged for [nuclear] upgrades and modernization. The House Appropriations subcommittee that approves funding of the weapons complex, run by the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA), just whacked almost $500 million from the weapons program. A slice of $100 million came out of a $200 million pot that is supposed to finance early steps in the coming year to build a new facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

What’s strange about the $100 million is that

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) had pushed for funding for [the above-mentioned facility, known as] the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility [CMRR-NF] — expected to cost $5 billion or more — as one of his demands of the Obama administration. 

As a condition, that is, of he and the Republican members of the Senate voting to ratify New START. Pincus again:

Problem is, members of the House weren’t involved in the discussions. [The] House Republican-led subcommittee that cut the funds says NNSA is not ready to support spending for early construction [of the CMRR-NF] because seismic issues are not resolved in the design. Plus, the subcommittee says, there is a need to revalidate what capabilities are to be needed in the plutonium area. 

The function of the CMRR-NF, you may recall from earlier posts of mine, is to perform scientific work for the nearby construction of nuclear pits – the living, breathing hearts of a nuclear weapon where the chain reaction occurs. As for the need for new nuclear pits, Frank von Hippel, physicist and nuclear policy authority, recently testified

The need for large-scale pit production has vanished. In 2003, the [NNSA] was arguing that the [United States] needed the capability to produce 125 to 450 pits per year by 2020 to replace the pits in the US weapon stockpile that would be 30 to 40 years old by then. . . . But, in 2006, we learned that US pits were so well made that, according to a Congressionally-mandated review of Los Alamos and Livermore studies on pit aging, “Most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium.” 

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, which has dedicated itself to halting construction of the CMRR-NF, said in a recent newsletter that at the Los Alamos “these proposed increases were to be unprecedented since the Manhattan Project.”

Regarding the CMRR-NF, the bill’s report reads “The Committee recommends $200,000,000, $100,000,000 below the budget request.” Although it “fully supports the Administration’s plans to modernize the infrastructure,” the Committee

. . . intends to closely review the funding requests for new investments to ensure those plans adhere to good project management practices. The latest funding profile provided to the Committee indicates that over half the funding requested for the Nuclear Facility would be used to start early construction activities. [But the] NNSA is not prepared to award that project milestone since [the project must, among other things] first resolve major seismic issues with its design. 

In other words

Modernization will take several years and the considerable number of variables still at play argues against an excessively aggressive funding curve. The construction of the new major facilities must not force out available modernization funding for the rest of the nuclear security enterprise. 

More on the “excessively aggressive funding curve” from Mello (emphasis added):

This $100 million . . . cut is 90% of all the Committee’s proposed cuts in NNSA construction, meaning that the House Appropriations is almost uniquely targeting CMRR-NF, among all proposed NNSA construction, for cuts. 

Meanwhile, at Arms Control Now, the blog of the Arms Control Association, Daryl Kimball writes (emphasis added):

Early news accounts have overlooked the fact that the House Energy and Water Appropriations bill would increase—not decrease—the NNSA weapons activities budget above the previous year’s level, and has allocated more than enough money to keep programs on track but not so much as to be fiscally irresponsible in this fiscally-constrained time. 

The . . . appropriations committee would increase funding for . . . weapons activities by 3% to $7.13 billion for fiscal 2012 from $6.99 for fiscal 2011. The fiscal 2010 appropriation for NNSA weapons activities was $6.36 billion.

But, according to Mello:

Overall, the Committee would slash $498 M from the Obama request for NNSA nuclear Weapons Activities, adding only 3% [over last year], a 6.6% cut from Obama’s warhead request. Considering inflation, nuclear warhead spending would not rise. 

Still, there’s no denying, as Mello says, that, “Relatively speaking, the Committee protected the nuclear weapons establishment.”

In fact, aside from the CMRR, most everything else was rubber-stamped. For example (emphasis added):

Project 10–D–501, Nuclear Facilities Risk Reduction, Y–12 National Security Complex, Oak Ridge, TN.—The Committee recommends $35,387,000 as requested. 

Project 08–D–802, High Explosive Pressing Facility, Pantex Plant, Amarillo, TX.—The Committee recommends $66,960,000 as requested.

Project 06–D–141, Project Engineering & Design, Uranium Processing Facility, Y–12 National Security Complex, Oak Ridge, TN.—The Committee recommends $160,194,000 as requested.

Meanwhile, the response to these developments of a less-than-totally-informed observer such as myself might run something like this:

Slashing CMRR-NF funding is like Republicans are saying to the Obama administration:

We got you to commit outrageous amounts of money to the CMRR-NF and other nuclear-weapons project by holding passage of New START hostage. But this time we weren’t in our default more-money-for-defense posture. Nor was it about pork. This time, inducing you to commit to these extravagant sums for the CMRR-NF and other nuclear projects was a ploy to make you look like you were playing fast and loose with taxpayers’ money. This year’s model of Republican is less about defense or pork than cutting spending (or looking like we are). 

Who knew that you can actually be too cynical about Republicans? Turns out, I was informed, that, while Senator Kyl is an old-fashioned defense-first Republican, some Republicans in the House Appropriations Committee are respectful of that particular committee’s traditional view that nuclear weapons are over-funded. As well, of course, the Tea Party strain currently infecting the Republican party seems to be emphasizing deficits over defense at the moment.

We’ll allow Kimball to put it all in perspective:

The Obama administration’s $88 billion, 10-year plan to operate the nuclear complex represents a 20 percent increase above funding levels proposed during the Bush administration. 

First posted at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

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