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Bill Backs Modular Plutonium Strategy Planned for Los Alamos
LAWMAKERS REACH COMPROMISE ON FY 2014 DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT Bill Backs Modular Plutonium Strategy Planned for Los Alamos The National Nuclear Security Administration’s modular plutonium strategy planned for Los Alamos National Laboratory received the backing of House and Senate lawmakers in the negotiated version of the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act unveiled this week. House and Senate leaders this week released details about the expansive legislation, which was passed by the House Dec. 12 and is expected to be voted on by the Senate next week. Included in the bill is a provision that largely mirrors language in the Senate Armed Services Committee-passed version of the bill requiring the Nuclear Weapons Council to verify that the plutonium strategy meets pit production requirements and will achieve full operations for at least two modular facilities by 2027.
The modular plutonium strategy has emerged as a leading candidate to replace the deferred Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility, and is expected to be a significantly cheaper alternative to the multi-billion-dollar CMRR-NF. “We are aware that further detail on requirements and plans for the modular approach are being developed and refined,” the bill’s joint explanatory statement said. “We expect the Nuclear Weapons Council to keep Congress informed as the modular approach is developed and implemented to meet requirements for pit production and a responsive infrastructure.”
Bill Authorizes $72.8 Billion Boost for NNSA
Overall, the bill authorizes $11.7 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a $72.8 million increase from the Obama Administration’s budget request that splits the difference between House and Senate versions of the bill. The bill authorizes $7.9 billion for NNSA’s weapons activities, a $40 million boost over the budget request, and $2.2 billion for the agency’s nonproliferation account, which is also a $40 million increase from the budget request. While the Senate Armed Services Committee’s modular plutonium strategy language remained in the bill, a key provision passed by the House that would’ve extended the principles of the Kansas City Plant governance pilot program to two additional sites across the weapons complex was left out. Instead, the bill requires only a feasibility study on extending the pilot program and calls for the permanent implementation of the program at the Kansas City Plant.
The Administration objected to the language earlier this summer. Though the Kansas City Plant pilot is being implemented at Sandia National Laboratories and the Nevada National Security Site, the Administration said its further expansion “could result in the unacceptable reduction of protection to workers, the public and security interests.” It added: “The Administration is concerned that piece-meal exemptions for nuclear operations and possibly for other high-risk operations would serve to exacerbate inconsistencies and confusion, and add governance, management, and oversight uncertainty across the enterprise.”
DNFSB Cost Language Stripped From Bill
Another House-drafted provision that drew opposition from the Administration earlier this summer, language that would’ve given DOE the ability to force the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to perform cost-benefit analyses on its recommendations, was also stripped from the bill. The Administration argued that the new cost requirements for the DNFSB “severely hampers” the Board’s ability to provide oversight of DOE’s nuclear facilities. The joint explanatory statement suggests that DOE should stand up to the Board more, especially on issues involving cost, and notes that the Secretary of Energy has the authority to reject DNFSB recommendations. “We believe it is imperative that the Secretary of Energy assess the costs and benefits of any recommendation made by the DNFSB,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe it is incumbent upon the Secretary to reject or request modifications to DNFSB recommendations if the costs of implementing the recommendations are not commensurate with the safety benefits gained.”
Bill Keeps Options Study for W78/W88 LEP
Lawmakers ignored opposition from the Obama Administration to language that would require the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration to develop cost estimates for separate life extension program options as part of a study on the W78/W88 interoperable warhead that could be fielded on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles. Provisions in both the House and Senate versions of the bill required analyses of alternatives to the first in what is expected to be a series of interoperable warheads, reflecting concerns that the interoperable warhead might be too expensive and too technically difficult to complete. The cost of the W78/W88 refurbishment, which would be the first of three interoperable warheads that make up the Administration’s “3+2” strategy for modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal, has come under question due to its high price tag. The NNSA, in its Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan released this summer, said preliminary estimates for the life extension program put the cost at $14 billion.
Last month, the Administration said it “strongly opposes” language in the Senate bill, arguing that the “current study scope will inform a cost/risk/benefit decision on a warhead with an interoperable nuclear explosive package that can be used on multiple platforms” and that determining the feasibility and costs for other options would “significantly delay completion and increase costs of the feasibility study.” The compromise bill, however, would prohibit funding from being spent on the engineering phase of the refurbishment study until 90 days after the Nuclear Weapons Council provides a “comparative analysis” of refurbishing the W78 and W88 individually as a point of comparison for the W78/W88. The cost comparison will “ensure the Congress understands the full cost and risk implications of the proposed program,” Senate leaders said in a statement explaining provisions in the bill.
Bill Creates CAPE Office in NNSA
Lawmakers also preserved language creating an Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation within NNSA, though they backed off making the director of the office a Senate-confirmed official. Under the new provision, the head of the office will be a Senior Executive Service position, and a requirement for two deputy directors was eliminated. The bill also tasks the NNSA Administrator and DoD’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation group—the model for the NNSA office—to come up with a joint implementation plan for the new office. Lawmakers said CAPE will be expected to “play an active role” in training workers in the new NNSA office as well as “helping shape and ensure quality cost estimates and program evaluations” during the formative years of the NNSA office. “The credibility of the NNSA with Congress and other agencies of the Executive Branch has been hurt by high-profile failures in cost estimation and program evaluation,” the joint explanatory statement said. “We expect the NNSA to embrace this new Cost Estimation and Program Evaluation office as a means to help regain its credibility.”
Lawmakers also adopted a House provision that requires the NNSA administrator to certify the status of security across the weapons complex and provide a corrective action plan in case certain facilities do not meet NNSA and DOE requirements as well as a Senate provision requiring the development of a long-term plutonium sustainment plan as part of the NNSA’s annual Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan. A Senate provision requiring NNSA to develop a plan for a common cost structure between activities at different sites also was adopted in the bill, requiring the agency to provide a plan for improving and integrating financial management of the weapons complex to Congress one year after the enactment of the bill. It also tasks the Government Accountability Office with reviewing the plan.
Termination Authority for Sec. of Energy Eliminated
However, a House-drafted provision giving the Secretary of Energy the authority to fire federal employees for endangering national security—conceived in the wake of last year’s Y-12 security breach—was stripped from the bill and replaced with language requiring a report by March 15, 2014, on the authorities available to the Secretary of Energy to terminate federal employees.
Among the other provisions in the bill, language requiring the Government Accountability Office to assess the cost savings associated with new NNSA management and operating contract awards emerged from negotiations largely unscathed, though lawmakers doubled the length of GAO’s reporting requirement to 180 days and clarified that the report was not to interfere with any award protests. The bill also requires the creation of a clearinghouse for expertise on security technologies, systems, analysis, testing, and response forces that would be called the Center for Security Technology, Analysis, Response, and Testing (CSTART), a slight change from the House-crafted language creating the center. The bill also extends the Congressional Advisory Panel on NNSA governance’s reporting deadline to July 1, with an interim report due March 1, and requires a study on reusing uranium secondaries in future life extension programs. —Todd Jacobson