Morning Briefing - July 13, 2020
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July 13, 2020

House Spending Bill Would Blank W93 Warhead, Continue Plutonium Pit Investment

By ExchangeMonitor

A 2021 spending bill up for debate today in the House Appropriations Committee would prohibit development of a proposed new nuclear warhead for the Navy while upping investments in infrastructure to produce new plutonium triggers — but not by as much as the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) wants.

That is according to a detailed bill report for the 2021 energy and water development legislation passed last week by the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee. 

The report specifies that the semiautonomous Department of Energy nuclear-weapon agency should not get any of the $53 million it sought for the proposed W93 submarine launched ballistic missile warhead. It should also focus near-term efforts to produce plutonium pits at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the document says — essentially the same stance majority House Democrats took last year.

Overall, the bill provides about $18 billion for the NNSA: more than $1 billion above the 2020 budget of some $16.7 billion, but nearly $2 billion less than the White House request of almost $20 billion. The full House Appropriations Committee is set to mark up the bill at 1 p.m. Eastern time today.

The bill report released Sunday specifies that the NNSA should receive just over $1 billion for its new Primary Capability Modernization account: the category that funds design and construction of plutonium-pit factories at Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. That’s about $600 million below the request, but more than $290 million above the 2020 appropriation.

Relative to the 2020 appropriations, the energy and water subcommittee taps the brakes on spending for the planned Savannah River pit plant while plowing more money into the expansion of Los Alamos’ Plutonium Facility. The bill would provide $650 million for Los Alamos Plutonium Modernization: over double the 2020 appropriation, but almost 20% below the request. Year-to-year spending on Savannah River Plutonium Modernization, on the other hand, would fall some 25% to about $305 million, if the bill becomes law. That’s roughly 30% less funding than requested.

The NNSA wants to convert Savannah River’s canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Facility into a new pit plant. Together, the facilities are supposed to produce at least 80 pits a year by 2030, though the NNSA has admitted it will be a challenge to make the deadline.

Most of the $1.7 billion of requested funding that the House Appropriations panel refused to grant the NNSA for fiscal 2021 was for upgrading and building nuclear weapons infrastructure, such as the pit plants. The difference between the agency’s ask for infrastructure and operations funding and the subcommittee’s recommendation was about $1 billion. 

On the other hand, essentially all ongoing and planned weapons modernization programs in the Stockpile Major Modernization account would get essentially the requested funding of $2.6 billion, according to the bill report. That is some $500 million more than the 2020 appropriation. The W93 is the only major modernization program the subcommittee was unwilling to fund. The proposed warhead would be a new warhead design based on an explosive package that could be certified without a yield test, the NNSA has said.

Also squeezed into the report, the House Appropriations Committee wants a briefing from the NNSA, no later than 60 days after the already-divisive bill becomes law, about the possibility of delaying production of the W80-4 cruise missile warhead by a year. The NNSA now plans to start producing the refurbished warhead in or after fiscal year 2025, when it expects to finish the proof-of-concept first production unit of the weapon.

The NNSA’s program-independent Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation has said the agency might be able to postpone the W80-4 first production unit without delaying deployment of the Long Range Standoff weapon cruise missile — its carrier vehicle — later this decade.

The Senate Appropriations Committee had not unveiled its preferred NNSA budget at deadline Monday.

Editor’s note, 07/14/2020, 4:05 p.m. The story was edited to include the committee’s request for a report about delaying the W80-4 warhead refurbishment.