Yesterday the Obama administration released the broad brushstrokes of its Fiscal Year 2015 budget request. In the process, they sent a clear signal that the administration is focusing on maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile while devoting fewer resources to preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear materials. The choice is particularly noteworthy in light of the administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which explicitly placed “preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism” as the first objective of U.S. nuclear policy.
In discussing the budget request, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz expressed his own personal unhappiness with the cuts to nonproliferation programs, noted he was “disappointed” in how the budget came out. But he defended the administration’s decision to increase funds for weapons activities while cutting other programs as a painful but necessary step.
The contrast in funding is indeed stark. The total FY15 request for the National Nuclear Security Administration is $11.7 billion The Weapons Activities account, under which work on the U.S. nuclear stockpile is funded, consumes $8.3 billion of that, a 6.9% increase over the amount appropriated in the current fiscal year. Nonproliferation activities take up only $1.6 billion, a 20% cut from current funding levels.
In comparison, in FY2010—the first year the Obama administration submitted its own budget—they requested $6.3 billion for weapons activities and $2.1 billion for nonproliferation programs. In FY2011, the administration projected that in FY2015 it would request $7.9 billion for weapons activities and $2.9 billion for nonproliferation. They exceeded their expectations on the weapons side, but cut back on nonproliferation funding by almost half.
The End of MOX?
The biggest news of the day was the decision to put the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant on “cold standby,” a step that is close to, but not quite, the end of this troubled—and troubling—project. Ending it would be a good thing. The program is designed to dispose of excess plutonium from nuclear weapons programs by using it as fuel in commercial nuclear reactors. However, it has long been hampered by major delays and significant cost overruns. Of more concern, UCS has long noted that, by using weapons-grade material in commercial facilities where security is lower, the MOX program would create more risks than it addresses.
While this fact was not enough to kill the program, it appears that the budget problems have almost done it in. The cost to construct the MOX fuel fabrication facility recently increased to $7.7 billion, a dramatic increase over the previous estimate of $4.8 billion, which itself was more than quadruple the initial estimate of $1 billion.
The life-cycle costs for the program, however, are even more troubling than the construction costs. DOE Secretary Moniz stated yesterday that the full cost of the program was in excess of $30 billion, significantly more than the NNSA’s draft April 2013 life-cycle cost estimate of $24.2 billion, which the Government Accountability Office criticized as “not credible.”
MOX still in the Mix
Despite that massive total cost, DOE officials were anxious to emphasize that the MOX program was not entirely dead. The administration is still examining approaches that will allow it to fulfill the agreement with Russia under which each country pledged to dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium from nuclear weapons. To that end, a new, independent, external review will launched. Secretary Moniz specifically noted that MOX was still among the options under consideration, although NNSA officials noted that it would require finding major cost savings in the program to make that possible.
Those statements, however, are somewhat at odds with how the Office of Management and Budget describes the situation. Their DOE budget document states: “The Department of Energy is developing alternative approaches to plutonium disposition and will engage with stakeholders to determine a viable alternative. As a result, the MOX project will be placed in cold standby while an alternative approached is determined.” While that statement is not definitive, the strong implication is that the MOX program is dead and an alternative will be pursued.
Whether or not MOX remains a real option, officials made clear yesterday that the new consideration of alternatives will take another 12-18 months. That study is on top of an assessment conducted over the last year following the release of the FY2014 budget request, in which the administration announced it was putting a hold on construction of the MOX facility while it considered alternative approaches to plutonium disposal.
At yesterday’s budget briefing, UCS requested that the completed study be released to the public, to comply with the engagement with stakeholders that is a part of the follow-on assessment. NNSA officials responded that the study could be released at the discretion of the Secretary of Energy, for whom it was conducted. We will be making a formal request to the Secretary to release the study.
The final note on the MOX program goes back to the disparity between weapons activities and nonproliferation programs. Officials noted that one of the reasons for the sharp decline in nonproliferation funding was the cut in the MOX program. In FY14, the budget included over $500 million for disposing of fissile material, of which $344 million went to construction of the MOX facility. The FY15 budget document requests $311 million for disposing of fissile material, and officials indicated $221 million of that was for the MOX facility.
While it is true that a portion of the cuts to nonproliferation programs is due to MOX funding reductions, it is only a portion. The once high-profile Global Threat Reduction Initiative, for example, faces a 25% budget cut, from $442 million to $333 million. Congress should restore as much of that funding as possible.
Top photo credit: TaxCredits.net