Congress largely approved President Barack Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation budget, with some small adjustments, when both chambers approved the fiscal year 2010 energy and water development appropriations bill last month.
Obama signed the bill into law Oct. 28.
The legislation, which includes monies for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), appropriates $2.14 billion for nuclear nonproliferation efforts, $15 million above Obama’s request. (See ACT, June 2009.)
The act also provides $6.38 billion, the amount requested by the administration, for weapons activities.
In nonproliferation, there were several program areas in which the congressional funding differed from the administration request. The largest adjustment went to nonproliferation and verification research and development, which received $317.3 million, $20 million above the presidential request. The program works to develop new technologies to help detect nuclear proliferation.
The second-largest boost went to international nuclear materials protection and cooperation, which received $19.8 million above the president’s request, for a total of $572.1 million. Programs under that heading work in Russia and other regions of proliferation concern to secure nuclear weapons and material against theft. The program also funds the installation of equipment at foreign ports and border crossings to detect nuclear material.
Congress provided $187.2 million, $5 million less than the administration requested, for the group of programs known as nonproliferation and international security. Those programs provide technical support for international treaties and organizations such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency. They also work to improve export controls and safeguards in other countries.
Congress trimmed $20 million from the administration request for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), providing $333.5 million. GTRI programs aim to reduce the risks created by stockpiles of nuclear and radiological material around the world.
A report accompanying the bill specified that $20 million of the GTRI funds be used to support the domestic production of molybdenum-99, a widely used medical isotope. The United States currently has no capacity to produce the isotope and depends on foreign producers that use highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a key part of the process. The facilities being considered for construction in the United States would use low-enriched uranium (LEU) instead.
Nonproliferation advocates have long urged that existing isotope reactors convert from HEU to LEU and that new ones be designed to use LEU. In a June letter, a coalition of nonproliferation advocates and medical professionals noted increasing problems at the foreign reactors and urged Congress to address the issue by using the energy and water appropriations bill to support domestic, LEU-based isotope production.
Congress fully funded the largest item under the nonproliferation heading, the construction of a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina. The plant, which is the centerpiece of the NNSA’s plutonium-disposition program, is being built to make MOX fuel, a blend of uranium and plutonium oxides, from surplus U.S. weapons plutonium.
Congress provided $504.2 million for the facility but expressed concerns about its cost. In the report accompanying the bill, Congress said it was worried that “future cost increases in the construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility…could divert resources from high-priority overseas nonproliferation activities. All efforts should be made to ensure this does not occur.”
For fiscal year 2010, Congress returned the MOX fuel project to the NNSA, where it has been historically. In recent years, Congress, at the instigation of the House appropriations energy and water subcommittee, had moved it to the Energy Department’s nuclear energy office. The House appropriators had questioned the project’s nonproliferation value and did not want the facility to drain funds from other nonproliferation programs.
In the section covering weapons programs, the appropriations act provides $1.51 billion, $8.8 million below the administration’s request, for work directly related to maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The legislation provides $223.2 million for the Life Extension Program (LEP) for the W76 warhead, the only LEP currently being undertaken by the NNSA. The LEP is intended to allow the 1970s-era W76 to remain in service for another 30 years without conducting nuclear tests.
Congress met the administration’s funding request for the maintenance of all nuclear bombs and warheads in the stockpile, with one exception. The request included $65 million for a study of the B61 nuclear bomb to determine options related to its refurbishment and service-life extension. Congress approved half that amount, $32.5 million, to study only the non-nuclear components of the bomb.
The new law also provides $96.1 million for nuclear weapons dismantlement, $12 million more than the administration requested.
The ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), faulted the legislation for inadequately funding the nuclear weapons complex. “Given the Obama administration’s plan to reduce the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, we need to make sure that the weapons we have left are safe and reliable, especially at a time when new threats to our security are emerging around the world. The funding level in this bill is simply inadequate to meet this need,” he said.