More Money to Come?

November 16, 2010
Nickolas Roth

This morning, Senator Kyl issued a statement questioning whether New START could be voted on during the lame duck session:

When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization. I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry, DOD, and DOE officials.

It is well known that for more than a year, Senator Kyl has been demanding big bucks for nuclear weapons programs, and the demands keep coming. In exchange, he has indicated that he may support New START. While his recent statement is not a “no,” it does not sound like the kind of enthusiasm that the administration was hoping to get for its money.

Last week, the Obama administration previewed for Senator Kyl the first half of a revised 10-year budget for nuclear weapons. It increased spending on nuclear weapons by $4.1 billion over the next 5 years, over and above the more than $80 billion that the Obama administration already pledged for nuclear weapons (not including delivery vehicles) over the next ten years. When compared to the previous 5 years of nuclear weapons funding, this will be somewhere around a $2 billion annual increase

But wait! More money could be on the way! Wednesday the Obama administration is planning to reveal the second half of a new 10-year plan for nuclear weapons.

This makes the timing of Senator Kyl’s statement particularly odd. Why would he issue a statement before he has all the facts?

What we do know is that the military is happy with New START, and in fact view it as essential to U.S. security. From Secretary Gates to Admiral Mullen on down, they want the Senate to approve the treaty ASAP. This is not joking matter, and not a subject for partisan debate. Every living former commander of U.S. nuclear forces supports New START.

Here’s some background on the money that has already been discussed. By any standard, the Obama administration’s 10-year plan to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile and complex is enormous. It is by far the most ambitious plan to have Congressional support since the end of the Cold War.

This plan includes building at least two new nuclear-weapon-production facilities: the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) in Los Alamos, New Mexico and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 in Tennessee. According to Todd Jacobson at the Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, the new estimate for the UPF is between $4.2 and $6.5 billion and for CMRR-NF is between $3.7 and $5.8 billion.

The United States also plans to refurbish at least three nuclear warheads: the W76 warhead for submarine-based missiles, the W78 warhead for land-based missiles, and the B61 bomb carried by strategic bombers. According to the latest stockpile plans, The W76 and W78 refurbishments are each expected to cost about $2.5 billion. The B61 refurbishment is estimated to cost about $4 billion. And these estimates are before NNSA has accounted for any of its typical cost and schedule overruns.

For those of you who don’t keep a list of nuclear weapon refurbishment schedules and U.S. stockpile numbers on your wall like I do, the United States has about 400 B61 bombs. This means refurbishing each new bomb is expected to cost roughly $10 million.

I have not seen the new budget, but I have heard (some of this has been reported) that the additional $4.1 billion promised last week is expected to go toward construction of the facilities mentioned above, to warhead refurbishment, and some to pensions.

The CMRR and the UPF are still in design phase. (As a side note, National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget request for FY11 is $225 million for the CMRR, and that’s just for the design stage. How on earth do you spend $225 million on design?) For a number of reasons, it is unclear when groundbreaking will take place on either of these facilities. Additionally, plans don’t call for first production units of the refurbished B61 bomb until around 2017.

The question now is whether these budget increases will buy Kyl’s support for the treaty, or how much more the administration is prepared to spend.