“Burning Platform”: NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino on FY 2013 Budget Request

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National  Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Thomas D’Agostino had been  testifying for only a few minutes when he spoke of the austere budget  environment as creating what he called a “burning platform” to “dramatically change  the way we do business.” 

“The  fiscal environment provides very difficult problems from our original plan” he  told the members of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations  Subcommittee on February 29 at a hearing to review NNSA’s FY 2013 request.  Under this request, NNSA funding would  increase by 4.9 percent or $535.9 million to $11,535.9 million in FY 2013.  The budget for Weapons Activities would  increase 5.0 percent.

Despite  these increases, D’Agostino outlined for the subcommittee a series of proposed  changes in FY 2013.  Two of the most  significant are a slowing of the planned schedule for weapons life extension.  NNSA also proposes to defer construction of a  Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMMR) nuclear facility at Los  Alamos resulting in an estimated cost avoidance of $1.8 billion from 2013 to  2017.  Under this new CMRR schedule, NNSA  will not have a new plutonium capability until 2028. 

Subcommittee  chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) wanted, and received assurance, from  D’Agostino that NNSA’s FY 2013 budget request will support the maintenance of  the stockpile.  The chairman also sought,  and again received, a statement for the record from D’Agostino that the FY 2012  appropriation will enable NNSA to maintain the stockpile.  NNSA received a 4.5 percent increase for this  year. 

Also  discussed was a recent report  by a  National Research Council subcommittee on the management of NNSA’s  laboratories.  The report was the subject  of a hearing by a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee at which a  prominent witness described “a system that is truly broken,” with “micromanagement  [that] is killing us.”   D’Agostino  described on-going efforts to address management and morale problems that were  identified by laboratory directors.  Twenty-eight  burdensome orders and directives were identified, and of these, 25 were taken  care of.  Two of the remaining three were  “put on hold” at the request of the directors; the remaining item is under  consideration. 

Rep.  Chaka Fattah (D-PA) asked about the ability of NNSA to retain and recruit a  workforce with the critical skills required at the laboratories.  D’Agostino said NNSA was competing with  universities and companies for the highest caliber employee, adding that the vital  nature of the mission was something that set the agency apart.  He also described the importance of the  laboratories’ employees being technically challenged “with very difficult  problems that the nation cares about” such as the Gulf oil spill or the  Fukushima disaster.   Also testifying was NNSA Deputy Administrator  Don Cook who predicted that as the economy improved the agency would have  difficulty attracting new employees, adding that he expected “a fairly strong  loss of people” now working at the laboratories. 

There  was also discussion about the nation’s stockpile which is the smallest it has  been since the Eisenhower Administration.   The average life of weapons in the stockpile is now beyond 25  years.  Frelinghuysen asked whether it  was true that “some pretty drastic reductions [are] being considered” in the  stockpile beyond those levels in the last Nuclear Posture Review and the START  II Treaty levels.  Frelinghuysen asked a  series of questions about such a reduction, with D’Agostino acknowledging that congressional  input would be sought if that were to occur.   Frelinghuysen expressed his concerns about scientists who “are not  benign” in North Korean, China, and Iran that “are working on their own version  of nuclear weapons and we need to be prepared to meet those kinds of  challenges.”

The  last exchange of questions was initiated by subcommittee Ranking Member Peter  Visclosky (D-IN), who stated, “Dr. Cook, it appears that the prospects of  achieving ignition at NIF [National Ignition Facility] in 2012 are not  great.  If we don’t achieve ignition in  2012, what will happen as far as restructuring program plans to advance  stockpile stewardship goals?

Cook  would not predict an ignition date, only saying “it’s a very demanding  scientific challenge.”  He told the  subcommittee that the facility could be used for other stewardship science  experiments in 2013 that are not limited to “those areas of ignition.”  When asked by Visclosky if ignition would  someday be achieved, Cook replied “I believe that good time and effort will get  us to ignition on NIF in the course of time.”   Both Visclosky and Frelinghuysen expressed their belief that, in  Visclosky’s words, “you needed ignition at the facility as a component to  ensure the success of stockpile stewardship.”   Cook replied “it is a key component, and not the only thing.”  D’Agostino concurred with Cook that ongoing  experimental work at NIF was “absolutely essential to stockpile stewardship”  “even without achieving that ignition point.”    

Members  did not press the witnesses for further clarification.  After a brief exchange about contract  management, the hearing was adjourned.

Note:  Selections  are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.

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