Fiscal Year 2011 Defense Authorization Bill and Nuclear Weapons

January 5, 2011
Nickolas Roth

With all the focus on whether or not to pass New START in a lame duck session before Christmas, very few people noticed that, in the blink of an eye, Congress passed the 1,000 page National Defense Authorization Bill of Fiscal Year 2011 (also referred to as “NDAA”) with no deliberation or amendments. This bill, which usually requires some two weeks of floor debate, affects policy and sets funding levels for all defense programs, including nuclear weapons. This year, the NDAA contained a number of noteworthy provisions related to nuclear weapons force structure, funding, and maintenance. There were also a few provisions that, thankfully, were left on the cutting room floor. I am going to do a couple of short posts on NDAA throughout the week.

I mentioned section 3114 in a previous post. That was the provision based on Nunn-McCurdy that will create cost and schedule requirements if DOE exceeds 125% of its original baseline cost estimate for nuclear weapons programs.

In that post I also mentioned section 1049 of the NDAA, but I provide more information here. Section 1049 requires the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to develop a methodology and criteria for determining the safety and security features for nuclear weapons.

Over the past several years, NNSA has argued that it needs to make modifications to the nuclear stockpile to increase the safety of U.S. weapons against accidents and their security against theft and unauthorized use.  As has been reported in other blogs, NNSA officials have said that the goal is to make nuclear weapons as “safe as a coffee table.” In other words, NNSA’s goal is to make an accidental or unauthorized explosion impossible. While this may sound good, it is simply not feasible for deployed weapons that are intended to be operational at a moment’s notice. However, by using the “coffee table” standard as its baseline, NNSA would likely end up making expensive and endless modifications to warheads in a futile quest for perfect safety and security.

On the other hand, in the past, NNSA sometimes ignored even modest safety standards if they proved inconvenient.

This new legislation will hopefully force DOE to come up with reasonable standards for safety and security, based on realistic criteria for the likelihood of theft or accident, and to stick to them.

The Report language in the Senate version of the NDAA provides some more detail:

For instance, at one point a standard for the nuclear stockpile was to have fire resistant pits in all nuclear weapons. A decision as to whether or not a warhead type actually was designed to have a fire resistant pit was made based on the requirements for the warhead, including the environment in which the warhead would be stored and deployed. While exceptions to the standard were made in the past, exceptions to the new baseline safety and security criteria should be undertaken only with a clear understanding of the risk entailed by such a decision.

In addition to making sensible threat assessments, the legislation also requires NNSA to do a cost/benefit analysis for warhead modifications. The NDAA report states:

While the committee believes strongly that new threats and vulnerabilities should be addressed, the committee also believes that there should be standards established and a review as to how best to meet the standards and address the vulnerabilities even in a constrained budget environment.

This means that NNSA will have to determine if there is a cheaper way of increasing the safety and security of nuclear warheads other than its preferred choice. As a hypothetical example, it might not make sense for the United States to spend a lot of money to modify the B61 warhead to make it slightly less vulnerable to unauthorized use while it is deployed in Europe if it could achieve the same result by spending less money to increase the security of the weapon’s storage and transportation.

This legislation is particularly important because, over the next 10 years, the United States plans to spend around $4 billion modifying the B61 warhead. In setting clear standards and making these assessments, NNSA will hopefully make better decisions about whether warhead modifications are actually needed, or if there are less expensive or intrusive options.