Democrats on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee on Tuesday used their majority to kill a GOP amendment that would have kept the Department of Energy’s plan to produce plutonium pits in South Carolina off the chopping block.
Subcommittee Democrats, led by Rep. James Cooper (R-Tenn.), quashed the amendment from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) 10-8 during a markup of the panel’s portion of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA): the annual policy bill that sets spending limits for defense programs including the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
The amendment also would have reversed the majority’s decision to defund the tail-end of the W76-2 program, which this year is producing low-yield variants of the W76-1 submarine-launched, ballistic-missile warhead carried aboard Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.
The Donald Trump administration called for the weapon in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, and the GOP-controlled 115th Congress authorized and funded the weapon to the tune of $65 million in fiscal year 2019, which ends Sept. 30, over the objections of their Democratic colleagues. The administration asked $10 million to finish the program in fiscal 2020 — NNSA expects to deliver the first W76-2 to the Navy by Sept. 30 — but House appropriators and authorizers have been unwilling to provide that sum.
Democrats tried to kill the W76-2 last year with an amendment proposed during the full House Armed Services Committee markup of the 2019 NDAA. That amendment failed on a neat party-line vote, just like Cheney’s amendment did Tuesday in the strategic forces subcommittee.
On Pits, Cooper cited a 2018 engineering analysis done for NNSA by Parsons Government Services as the driving force behind the subcommittee’s decision to steer future pit production exclusively to Los Alamos.
The Parsons analysis found a two-state pit strategy could cost about $30 billion to complete over several decades, compared with about $15 billion to keep production at Los Alamos.
NNSA and the Pentagon have said they need a pair of pit plants in case something goes wrong with one facility. Los Alamos’ planned pit plant would be fitted to a facility that is decades old in some places, and which could only ramp up to 80 pits a year if it gave shorter shrift to other missions at the lab, such as producing plutonium 238. That isotope is used to power military and civilian space robots. NNSA also uses Plutonium 238 to prematurely age existing pit designs to see how the weapon cores degrade over time.