Morning Briefing - July 21, 2020
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July 21, 2020

House NDAA Amendments Set Stage for Nuclear Weapons Debates With Senate

By ExchangeMonitor

The House and Senate are set for a bicameral conference debate about federal nuclear weapons policy, after the lower chamber on Monday approved legislative language that would prohibit nuclear tests and put the secretary of energy on the Nuclear Weapons Council.

Both provisions were amendments to the House’s annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which reached the floor for debate about three weeks after the Armed Services Committee approved it on a voice vote. The stand-alone test ban amendment passed 227-179 on a mostly party-line vote. The change to the Nuclear Weapons Council was part of an en bloc package that passed 336-71.

The NDAA, which the House was slated to vote on after deadline for Weapons Complex Morning Briefing, authorizes the same overall 2021 budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) as the Senate’s: a roughly 20% year-over-year increase to some $20 billion. That amount was rejected in an energy and water spending bill that advanced out of the House Appropriations Committee last week.

The Senate NDAA, on which the chamber is set to resume debate today, authorizes $10 million to prepare if necessary to perform a yield-producing nuclear-weapons test. The House NDAA forbids any spending on yield-test preparations.

“We want to make it clear it’s not a good idea to do live nuclear testing,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said during yesterday’s floor debate. “We do not need to be setting off nuclear weapons.”

In May, The Washington Post reported that the Donald Trump administration was considering a rapid nuclear-explosive test as a means of persuading Russia and China to negotiate a trilateral nuclear arms-control treaty with the U.S. 

The House NDAA also would put the secretaries of energy and defense on the joint Pentagon-DOE Nuclear Weapons Council. That would put the House at odds with the Senate, which wants to give the Nuclear Weapons Council, as constituted, the ability to make formal budget recommendations to the secretary of energy about the National Nuclear Security Administration’s annual budget requests: recommendations the secretary of energy would then have to pass on to the White House before the president shares a final federal budget request with Congress.

Separately, a Texas congressman failed in his attempt to attach an amendment to the House NDAA that would authorize disposal of certain foreign-generated radioactive material at DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

Rep. Pete Olson (R) wanted to allow disposal of americium-241 in the WIPP underground. The material, which could conceivably be used in a dirty bomb, is often co-located with transuranic waste that is eligible for WIPP disposal. The House Rules Committee did not vote to make the amendment “in order,” which would have allowed the proposal to be voted upon on the House floor, according to a congressional staffer.