House and Senate lawmakers are scheduled to meet Wednesday to settle differences over an annual military policy bill that affects Department of Energy plutonium programs and oversight of the agency’s main weapons-production contract.
The House passed its fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in May, and the Senate completed its version in June. The bill received overwhelmingly bipartisan approval on the floor of both chambers, each of which authorized the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to begin work on the new low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead requested by the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
Last year, it took the House and Senate about two weeks of closed-door negotiations to settle on a unified National Defense Authorization Act that could be signed into law by the president. The two chambers must meet in conference whenever they pass different versions of the same bill.
Some of the differences between this year’s bill, at least in the NNSA realm, include whether to fund or cancel the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility and turn the unfinished, over-budget plutonium-disposal plant in South Carolina into the NNSA’s main hub for plutonium warhead cores. The Senate bill would prohibit the Department of Energy from moving forward with this approach. The House bill authorizes continued construction, but contains no outrigh ban on cancellation and allows DOE to end the mission it it can certify an alternative plutonium disposal method is cheaper than the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.
The Senate bill also includes report language — which does not carry the force of law — directing the Government Accountability Office to prepared a detailed briefing about how much money the NNSA has saved by combining the management and operations contracts of the Pantex weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The House bill report contains no such language.
Overall, both the House and Senate bills authorize spending more than $15 billion for active nuclear-weapons, nonproliferation, and nuclear-naval programs managed by NNSA.