Why does Rep. Mike Turner want nuke lab?

During House Armed Services Committee’s May 9 markup of the National Defense Authorization Bill, House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) successfully introduced two amendments that would take construction of the CMRR-NF out of the hands of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which says it can’t afford the facility and does not need it, and require the Department of Defense (DOD) to build and pay for it.  Rep. Turner also added an additional $100 million for the CMRR-NF in the bill. To put the size of the project into context, this would be the largest
construction project in New Mexico history.

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The CMRR-NF’s purpose is to increase the U.S’s capacity to produce plutonium cores for nuclear weapons. Rep. Turner’s amendments claim that the only way “to create and sustain the capability to produce plutonium pits for nuclear weapons, and to ensure sufficient plutonium pit capacity, to respond to technical challenges in the existing nuclear weapons stockpile or geopolitical” is via construction of the CMRR-NF. But this facility is not a prerequisite for producing plutonium pits. In fact, the United States has been producing plutonium pits on a small scale for much of the past decade and has thousands of pits in storage from dismantled weapons. As NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino testified to the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee earlier this year, “we are not hampered by saying the nation has to have a capability right now to make 50 or 80 pits per year in order to take care of the stockpile.” Further, an independent scientific study conducted for the federal government in 2009 concluded that the U.S. nuclear stockpile will not require new plutonium core for decades.

What Rep. Turner also failed to mention when he introduced these amendments was that decisions about how to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile are made by both the Pentagon and the NNSA through an entity called the Nuclear Weapons Council. If the  DOD believed it essential to spend $6 billion on the CMRR-NF, it would have already allocated money for the project. In fact, the DOD, since 2011, has been transferring money to NNSA for projects it deemed essential. It is clear that the Pentagon, in conjunction with NNSA, had already decided that it could not afford to build the CMRR and adequately fund or manage other high priority nuclear modernization activities, as well. They concluded that CMRR is not needed since other alternatives to
producing plutonium core production already exist. In supporting documents to the FY 2013 budget request, the Office of Management and Budget stated, “NNSA has determined in consultation with the national laboratories that existing infrastructure in the nuclear complex has the inherent capacity to provide adequate support for these missions. Therefore, NNSA proposes deferring CMRR construction for at least five years.”

In addition to requiring construction, the Turner amendments also would prevent NNSA or the Pentagon from considering less expensive plutonium sustainment strategies that do not include construction of the CMRR. This bizarre attempt to prevent consideration of a more cost-effective alternative to CMRR is such a bad idea that earlier this year, members of his own party criticized NNSA for doing the exact same thing. The House FY 2013 Energy and Water bill noted that, “By not fully considering all available options [to CMRR], millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent for work which will not be needed until a much later date.”

We support an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that will be offered this week by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to eliminate FY
2013 funding for CMRR. Rep. Markey’s proposal will strike sections from the bill that require the completion of the proposed facility and forbid Congress from funding less expensive alternatives.

At a recent campaign event, Rep. Turner claimed that one of his biggest priorities was ending the nation’s mountainous debt. Tell us, how does building a plutonium laboratory that DOD and NNSA say they cannot currently afford and do not currently need fit into his strategy?

Roth is a research assistant at Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. The opinions in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of his organization. Brian is the executive director of the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms.

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