The March/April issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has an article (unfortunately behind a paywall) about the enormous stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) the United States still retains for weapons purposes, co-authored by GSP Program Director Lisbeth Gronlund and myself. The article is based on chapter 6 of UCS’s recent report, Making Smart Security Choices, and concludes that the United States should immediately declare much more of this material excess and dispose of it in ways that minimize the risk that it could be stolen by terrorists and used to make a nuclear weapon. Read More
April 14th, 2014
March 25th, 2014
The communiqués issued at the previous two Nuclear Security Summits said almost nothing about the dangers of separated plutonium. That was a problem. The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit communiqué does say something about plutonium—but the world would have been better off if it had remained silent on the issue. Read More
March 24th, 2014
On March 26, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to have a hearing to receive words of wisdom from a Congressionally-mandated “Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise,” which is government-speak for trying to fix the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Read More
March 5th, 2014
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
February 28th, 2014
With the FY14 Omnibus Appropriations bill finally passed in January, and a new budget proposal for FY15 coming up next week, now is a good time to take a look at where the FY14 chips have fallen, and what the approaching budget cycle may hold for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Our previous post covered weapons programs, while this installment will look at the agency’s funding for nonproliferation programs.
Nonproliferation Programs: Cuts, but Some Good News
As noted in our previous post, nonproliferation programs generally did not do as well as weapons programs in FY14, and total appropriations for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation were about $186 million less than the NNSA request. Despite the overall drop in funding between the NNSA’s request and the appropriations bill, however, appropriators actually added modest amounts of funding to several key programs, citing the importance of their goals and the danger that reduced funding would lead to long delays in accomplishing program goals.
Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI): Congress Holds NNSA to its Word on Goals
The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) was one of the programs that received modest additional funding from appropriators in FY14. The NNSA requested $424 million, about 12 percent less than the program’s FY13 funding. The NNSA explained the drop in requested funding by saying that the program is reaching the end of an intensive four-year effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material worldwide, and that most of the funding for this effort was frontloaded, so less is required as it nears its end. In FY12 budget documents, however, the NNSA anticipated requesting $637 million for the program in FY14. Moreover, a comparison of current program goals with the FY12 request shows that they have been scaled back.
FY14 Global Threat Reduction Initiative Funding, USD, in millions
Despite the NNSA explanation, however, Congressional appropriators added $18 million to the NNSA request, for a total of $442 million—an increase, but still $59 million less than the program’s FY13 funding. Senate appropriators actually sought to increase funding for the program further, citing concern over the potential for a reduction in funding to cause completion of a program to install security upgrades at civilian buildings with vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials to slip from 2025 to 2044—20 years later than the NNSA’s previously stated goal. House appropriators were less supportive, attempting to limit increased funding to the international portions of GTRI, while cutting funding for domestic activities.
Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX): Digging a Deeper Hole
One other beneficiary of the appropriations process was the Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel program, for disposing of excess weapons plutonium. The administration requested $503 million for disposing of plutonium and uranium in FY14—a drop of about 30 percent from its FY13 funding. Within that amount, funding for the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) dropped from $438 million to $320 million. The NNSA said it would slow the program while conducting an assessment of alternative plutonium disposition strategies. This assessment has reportedly been completed and presented to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz, but it is not clear when the results will be announced.
Mixed Oxide Fuel Program Funding, USD, in millions
Despite expressing concern about delays and cost overruns in the program, Congress (influenced heavily by key members from South Carolina, where the program is based) elected to increase funding above the NNSA request. The appropriators provided an additional $24 million for the program in FY14, for a total of $344 million. While this is a cut of $94 million from FY13 funding, it is still too much; it makes no sense to increase spending on a program in the midst of a reassessment. This is particularly true when alternative strategies like immobilization pose fewer security risks and could ultimately be cheaper than MOX.
The Final Tally: Room for Improvement in FY15
In the end, the big question is whether in FY15 either Congress or the NNSA will finally begin to take seriously the ongoing fiscal constraints that the entire federal government faces. In the FY14 budget process, Congress began to recognize that it needs to keep a closer eye on the NNSA’s more extravagant plans, as in the case of the interoperable warhead, but still increased funding for pet projects like MOX.
Some of the additional studies Congress requested this year—such as on the B61 or the W78 life extension programs—may encourage a more reasonable approach to the FY15 budget request. At the very least, they should provide much-needed details on the NNSA’s plans and cost estimates. Such external scrutiny of many current and previous NNSA projects is essential, or the programs will continue to be years behind schedule and many times more expensive than anticipated. Congress must exercise its authority to demand additional information and transparency from the NNSA to ensure that the programs the agency proposes are necessary and carried out efficiently.
Photo credit: TaxCredits.net
February 27th, 2014
On January 16th, two weeks after the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2014 began, Congress passed the FY 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Act that will fund government operations through September 30, 2014. That action finally freed the government from a series of short-term funding measures and, it is hoped, will pave the way for a more normal budget process for FY 2015. This massive bill lumps together all eleven annual appropriations bills to cover funding for every federal agency, including the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). With the administration scheduled to put out its budget proposal for FY 2015 next week, we can now see where the FY 2014 chips have fallen, and get some idea of what the future may hold.
NNSA FY14 Funding, USD, in billions
Amounts are not exact due to rounding.
*includes rescission of $64 million from prior year balances
The final overall FY14 appropriation for the NNSA came in at $11.2 billion, a modest decrease from the Obama administration’s request of $11.7 billion, and also slightly under the agency’s FY13 funding. Of this, $7.8 billion (about 70 percent) is for Weapons Activities and $2 billion for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, with the remaining amount going to Naval Reactors ($1.1 billion) and the NNSA Office of the Administrator. While the overall trend was down—understandable in a year when the entire government is facing cuts—some programs fared better than others. In the Weapons Activities category, for example, Appropriators allocated $7.8 billion—virtually level with last year and slightly more than in FY12—while Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation fared worse, with a 7.1% cut from the FY14 request, but a nearly 19% decline from FY13. Below we look more closely at a few key weapons programs; a follow-up post will look at the nonproliferation programs.
Weapons Activities: Still a Winner
Appropriators provided only slightly less funding overall than requested for Weapons Activities, but some individual programs within this category did not do as well. The biggest cut was to the W78 life extension program (LEP), which received only about half of requested funding, while the B61 LEP was a notable winner.
FY14 Life Extension Program Funding, USD, in millions
*Funds authorized for “W78/88-1 Life Extension Program”
B61 Life Extension Program: Most Funding Intact, Despite Reservations
Despite Senate appropriators’ efforts to substantially cut funding for the update to the B61 gravity bomb—to $369 million from a requested $537 million—the final appropriation for the DOE portion of the program matched the NNSA request. That gives the program a hefty 45% increase over FY13 funding. However, noting that the overall life extension program may cost up to $10 billion total, both houses of Congress raised questions about the NNSA’s selection of such a costly and extensive alternative and the agency’s ability to successfully manage the program. While providing the requested funding, the appropriations bill requires DOE to submit a report to Congress including a description of all alternatives considered for the B61 LEP, along with “a comparison of the costs and benefits of each…to include an analysis of trade-offs among cost, schedule and performance objectives against each alternative considered.” This requirement hints that Congress is still concerned about the B61 update and, because they are concerned about the process, hopes to learn enough to avoid something similar in the future.
On the DOD side, appropriators cut funding for the proposed new tail kit for the B61 nearly in half. DOD requested $67 million for this work, which would increase the bomb’s accuracy, an improvement that DOD argues would allow a reduction in the bomb’s yield. Appropriators also rejected a $10 million DOD request to assess using the new fighter plane, the F-35, to drop the life-extended B61 bombs.
W78/W88-1 and Interoperable Warheads: On the Chopping Block
The appropriators’ position on the proposed first interoperable warhead (IW-1) evolved as news reports emerged suggesting that the Obama administration was changing its own plans. The “interoperable warhead” was to replace the W78 and W88 warheads, and used on both land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and sea-based submarine-launched ballistic missiles. In its FY14 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, released in July 2013, the NNSA laid out an aggressive plan for life extension programs over the next 25 years that included an additional two interoperable warheads to follow. The overall cost of its plans was projected to be $60 billion, with $14.5 of this for the IW-1.
In December 2013, however, reports surfaced that plans for IW-1 were in jeopardy, and that the administration’s upcoming FY15 budget would indefinitely defer work on the program. Cost was initially cited as a major factor in this decision.
In light of these reports, House and Senate appropriators, who had both fully funded the $73 million request for work on the W78/W88-1 IW-1 in their initial bills, essentially killed the interoperable warhead in the final omnibus bill. That bill provided only $38 million, a cut of almost half of the request. The accompanying report states that the provided funding is to be used “to continue to study options to extend the life of the W78,” and leaves out the W88 entirely, meaning no funding is available to work on that warhead in FY14.
Photo Credit: TaxCredits.net
February 19th, 2014
In January of 2013, the Air Force announced that it was conducting a “ground-based strategic deterrent analysis of alternatives,” which is military-speak for looking at options to replace the current silo-based, long-range Minuteman III missiles, which are armed with one to three nuclear warheads and deployed across the central plains of the United States.
The Air Force analysis has been subject to some ridicule, in particular because among the options considered are underground, rail-mobile approaches that were considering during the peak of the nuclear build-up in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan and rejected even then as too expensive.
As it turns out, even a direct replacement for the silo-based Minuteman would cost around $100 billion; the mobile approaches would be considerably more. That price is giving pause to even advocates for renewing the strategic triad of nuclear-armed submarines, missiles, and bombers.
Last week, I attended a conference of many self-proclaimed “die-hard Cold Warriors.” Speakers included Gen. Larry Welch, former head of Strategic Air Command (the predecessor of today’s Strategic Command), Johnny Foster, former head of Livermore national laboratory, and Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, who is responsible for the Air Force’s nuclear deterrence operations.
Given the speakers, what I discovered at the conference is somewhat surprising: the idea of replacing the Minuteman with a new missile is already widely dismissed as too expensive.
January 28th, 2014
Last week the Defense Science Board (DSB) released a report calling for reforms in the way the U.S. government monitors the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons programs around the world. The Board found there are “gaps” in the U.S. intelligence community’s “global nuclear monitoring” capabilities. It argued that closing these gaps “should be a national priority.” The report recommended adopting “new tools for monitoring,” including looking at “open and commercial sources” with “big data analysis.” Read More
January 22nd, 2014
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates wrote a new book on his tenure under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Most of the reporting focuses on his opinions of the two presidents. But one of the more interesting revelations in the book is how this long-serving leader in the U.S. defense and intelligence communities views his counterparts in China.
Dr. Gates, who earned his doctorate in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown in 1974, first traveled to China in 1980 with CIA Director Stansfield Turner to implement an agreement on technical intelligence cooperation negotiated by President Carter and Deng Xiaoping. The purpose of the agreement was to replace CIA radar sites in northern Iran lost after the 1979 revolution. Gates did not return to China until 2007 during his tenure as Secretary of Defense. In his memoir Gates, who rose through the ranks to eventually become the director of the CIA before his appointment as Secretary of Defense, said he went to China with the hope that he could establish “something similar” to the “extraordinary relationship” embodied in the radar agreement with China, which ”continued uninterrupted over the decades through the ups and downs in the two nations’ political relationship.”
Unfortunately, Secretary Gates harbored suspicions about his counterparts that undermined his hopes. He wrote “China always prefers to deal with each country individually” because they are “easier to intimidate that way.” He saw blog posts about a test of a new Chinese fighter plane that appeared on-line during his official visit as a “politically portentous stunt” the PLA aimed at him. He concluded that China’s test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 was conducted by the Chinese military without the knowledge of China’s senior leadership. And he referred to PLA General Ma Xiaotian, who is now the Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, as a “handler of the barbarians” whose job was to present the appearance of an official military to military dialog that Gates believed the PLA was “leery” to conduct in earnest.
One of the most important topics Gates wanted to discuss with China was nuclear strategy. Although President Bush and President Hu agreed to start a nuclear dialog when they met in April 2006, Gates claimed “it was pretty plain that the People’s Liberation Army hadn’t received the memo.” He believed the PLA was dragging its feet, in defiance of China’s political leaders. But Gates also seemed unaware of Chinese views on nuclear weapons. In commenting on President Obama’s pledge to commit the United States to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, Gates wrote:
“Obama was the fourth president I had worked for who said outright that he wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons (Carter, Reagan and Bush 41 were the others). Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former defense secretary Bill Perry, and former senator Sam Nunn had also called for “going to zero.” The only problem, in my view, was that I hadn’t heard the leaders of any other nuclear country—Britain, France, Russia, China, India or Pakistan—signal the same intent.”
China first called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons on the occasion of its first nuclear test in October 1964. It is a statement of intent Chinese leaders and officials have repeated regularly for decades.
One reason the U.S.—China nuclear dialog fails to advance is an interminable argument over the commitment to no first use. China wants the U.S. to promise, as China has, to never use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances. The U.S. sees the Chinese pledge as meaningless, just as Secretary Gates apparently sees China’s long-standing official commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons as meaningless.
Secretary Gates’ interest in establishing a meaningful dialog with his Chinese counterparts is reassuring. He does not provide enough information or context in the book to assess whether his suspicions of the motives and behavior of his PLA counterparts are justified, but his frank account of his interactions with them are an instructive indication that the U.S. strategic dialog with China is not as productive as the official press releases would lead us to believe.
November 27th, 2013
At the very beginning of his presidency Barack Obama promised the world he would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy and encourage other nations to follow suit. It was the most significant single act in a new U.S. approach to international diplomacy, for which he was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Not long afterwards, Mr. Obama was presented with an historic opportunity to diminish the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in the defense of Japan. Unfortunately, he did not live up to his promise. Read More