Only in Washington is more considered less

The Republican-led House appropriations committee would increase funding for NNSA weapons activities by 3 percent to $7.13 billion for fiscal 2012 from $6.99 for fiscal 2011. The fiscal 2010 appropriation for NNSA weapons activities was $6.36 billion. The House appropriations bill allocation of $7.13 billion for fiscal 2012 is $500 million (7 percent) less than the Barack Obama administration’s whopping $7.63 billion request.

Not surprisingly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is already complaining about the "cut" to the Obama administration's budget proposal. In the coming days, some Congressional members may well argue that without every dollar of the administration's expanded funding request, the nuclear arsenal may turn into jello. Think again.


As the House subcommittee noted in their report: “The request for Weapons Activities is the second year of large increases requested in order to pursue the Administration’s strategy set forth in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to maintain an aging stockpile through full scope life extension activities, to modernize the infrastructure and restore capabilities, and to address the immediate maintenance and production requirements of the stockpile.”

The subcommittee report also notes that the NNSA’s two major infrastructure projects — the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility at Los Alamos and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge — may now cost as much as $12 billion to construct. About $100 million of the $200 million requested for proposed CMRR facility at Los Alamos was cut by the committee. The CMRR and the UPF are not scheduled to be completed until the mid-2020s.

In his opening statement at the markup hearing June 14, House Energy and Water Subcommittee Chair Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) observed, “Only in Washington could an increase of this magnitude be seen as a cut.”

Frelinghuysen went on to explain that the NNSA budget request "...included hundreds of millions of dollars for  construction projects that are not ready to move forward, capabilities that are secondary to the primary mission of keeping our stockpile ready, and, yes, slush funds that the administration has historically used to address its needs. The recommendation before you eliminates these weaknesses and it is responsible.”

He is right. While government program managers and contractors will always gripe about funding needs, minor cuts and cost savings in NNSA weapons spending over time won’t change the fact that the NNSA weapons activities budget, at $7 billion this year and even more for the coming year, provides more than enough to maintain the effectiveness of the United States arsenal.

As NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said in an April 2011 interview: “[I]n my opinion, we have a safe and secure and reliable stockpile. There’s no need to conduct underground [nuclear] testing.”

Not only do the nuclear weapons laboratories have a deeper understanding of the arsenal than they ever did during the days of nuclear test explosions, but they also have more resources than ever. The Obama administration’s $88 billion, 10-year plan to operate the nuclear complex represents a 20 percent increase above funding levels proposed during the George W. Bush administration-era.

Congress must exercise its fiduciary oversight responsibilities and ensure the nation's nuclear weapons labs remain focused on the highest priority stockpile maintenance tasks, while minimizing unnecessary and expensive alterations to already well-understood nuclear warhead designs.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.