Morning Briefing - December 28, 2020
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December 28, 2020

Omnibus Spending Bill for 2021, Signed at Last, Has Raises for DOE Nuclear Programs

By ExchangeMonitor

On Sunday, nearly a week after Congress passed it, President Donald Trump at last signed a permanent 2021 spending bill that locks in raises for the Department of Energy’s major nuclear waste and weapons programs.

DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) would receive over $7.5 billion for the rest of 2021, some $130 million over the 2020 budget and over $1 billion more than the administration requested.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), meanwhile, will get $19.7 billion, which is just a hair less than requested and more than $3 billion above the 2020 budget. It’s a vindication for ex-NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, who prior to being forced to resign her post in early November went to the mattresses with the DOE, Congress and the administration for the larger-than-expected civilian nuclear-weapons budget.

Fiscal 2021 is the second year in a row when, faced with the choice of cutting Cold War nuclear-cleanup or not meeting the request for active weapons programs, Congress went for Plan C: increases for both parts of DOE.

Outside of DOE, the bill provides $31 million for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board: the independent federal watchdog for active and shuttered nuclear weapon sites. That’s about flat compared with 2020 and some $3 million more than requested. 

The report accompanying the 2021 omnibus spending bill also directs the defense board to maintain a staff of at least 110 full-time equivalents — the board had talked about cutting back to under 100 — and directs DOE and the board to continue working on a memorandum of understanding about their day-to-day interactions under DOE’s still-active Order 140.1. 

The order restricts interactions between the two federal agencies, and the bill report called it part of “the Department’s continued desire to reshape, often without merit, the Department’s interactions with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.”

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, regulator of civilian nuclear power plants and the waste they generate, would receive a little more than $830 million: roughly $20 million less than request and about $10 million less than in 2020. The bill also provides $20 million within DOE for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel from civilian plants.

Holtec International and a partnership comprising Waste Control Specialists and Orano are trying to get commercially operated interim storage facilities licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but that cannot happen until months into the Joe Biden administration. 

Below are a few more highlights for DOE programs from the omnibus bill report: the companion piece to the just-enacted legislation that lays out Congress’ site-specific plans for DOE’s 2021 budget.

Environmental Management:

Starting with DOE’s next budget request, nominally due in February, DOE must include funding estimates for five years worth of legacy nuclear weapons cleanup with its public budget requests, plus “an estimate of the total cost and time to complete cleanup at each site,” according to the omnibus bill report.

At Hanford, the largest DOE nuclear-weapons cleanup site, Congress made clear that the DOE should press on with the High Level Waste Treatment Facility and its Pretreatment Facility, and that neither facility should be put “into preservation mode for any length of time.” Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, DOE said it was unlikely that the High Level Waste Facility would be ready to start solidifying Hanford’s most radioactive tank waste by 2036, as required under a 2016 consent decree handed down by a federal judge. 

Also at Hanford, Congress roped off $28 million for groundwater remediation and infrastructure handled by DOE’s Richland Operations Office, which is largely in charge of solid-waste cleanup at the former plutonium production complex. The bill report also forbids DOE from using Richland funding for cleanup of liquid radioactive waste at Hanford’s tank farms, which is overseen by DOE’s Office of River Protection.

Elsewhere in the old weapons complex, the bill does not provide funding recommended by the House for road and infrastructure improvements in New Mexico related to traffic to and from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad: DOE’s only deep-underground repository for transuranic waste. Instead, the omnibus report directs DOE to report to the appropriations committees, within 90 days of President Trump signing the spending bill, about “WIPP-related road usage and future funding needs for this activity.” Skipping weekends and federal holidays, the reporting deadline would be May 6.

Lawmakers also demanded a briefing from DOE about a record of decision for a proposed on-site landfill at the Oak Ridge site in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Instead of issuing a decision in mid-December as expected, DOE pushed the day of reckoning off to July. 

“Concerns persist regarding the delays in issuing the Record of Decision for the new landfill and [Congress] notes the Department has not provided the results of the evaluation of the cost of onsite disposal compared to the offsite disposal, and the economic impact to the local community,” the omnibus bill report reads.

National Nuclear Security Administration

Under the omnibus, the NNSA’s core programs to refurbish and maintain active nuclear weapons get the requested funding, as do the agency’s programs to build and upgrade weapons-production infrastructure in New Mexico, Tennessee and South Carolina. 

The compromise bill also provides $53 million to begin work on the proposed W93 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead: a weapon the House wanted to zero out. W93 will be a previously tested nuclear-explosive package in a new Mark 7 aeroshell to be designed according to Navy needs.

W93 will also share technology with the United Kingdom’s next submarine-launched warhead: a replacement for the Trident Holbrook that will be carried by the planned fleet of Dreadnought ballistic-missile submarines.

The Senate essentially rolled the House again in nuclear-weapon budget negotiations this year, with the GOP-controlled upper chamber getting its way about everything from the W-93 to the controversial plutonium pit production factories the NNSA is building at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

Including upgrades to the Los Alamos pit plant and modifications to turn the cancelled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River into a pit factory, the omnibus has some $1.2 billion more for pits than the 2020 budget. 

The NNSA plans to cast multiple war-ready pits — fissile nuclear weapon cores — starting in 2024 at Los Alamos, then ramp up to at least 80 pits a year by 2030 using both facilities. These pits will all, at least initially, be for the W87-1 warheads that will eventually tip the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent rockets scheduled to replace existing Minuteman III nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles around 2030.

The first deployed Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Missiles could use W87-0 warheads from the Minuteman fleet, the NNSA has said. W87-1 will be essentially a copy of the existing warhead, but with a new pit.