“I’m glad I’m not in your shoes,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Acting Administrator Neile Miller at the conclusion of a demanding hearing on the agency’s FY 2014 budget request. Feinstein is the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, and her sentiments are a clear signal of mounting congressional concerns about the NNSA.
These concerns revolve around money: how the Obama Administration wants to allocate it, and how NNSA has spent it. Senators from both parties expressed real concern about both.
Feinstein called the scope of the proposed work in the request “unsustainable and unrealistic. Given sequestration, shrinking budgets and NNSA’s long history of cost overruns and scheduled delays I don’t see how it can successfully execute its mission” she said in her opening remarks. Feinstein criticized the “huge tradeoff” in what she characterized as a shortchanging of the budget request for the nonproliferation program in favor of nuclear weapons activities. The Administration requested a 9.1 percent increase, over the FY 2012 budget, for Weapons Activity programs in FY 2014. Funding for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation programs would decline 7.0 percent, which she twice called a “drastic” cut. In all, Feinstein said, the FY 2014 request represents an increase of 17 percent or $1.8 billion in NNSA funding in just four years.
Feinstein is also concerned about how NNSA is spending its appropriation. After wondering why less expensive alternatives were not considered in weapons’ life extension programs, she stated, “I also have serious doubts about NNSA’s ability to properly manage projects and provide necessary oversight of the contractors operating at national labs and sites.”
Ranking Member Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) comments were of a similar tone. “If the NNSA does not find a more effective way to deal with the design of these large multi-billion dollar facilities . . . it’s going to lose congressional support for those facilities” he warned. Alexander called for “at least a good solid 90 percent design estimate before we start,” faulting the process used in the construction of other facilities.
Feinstein’s first question was about the life extension program for the B61nuclear bomb. She asked if NNSA planned to reassess this program’s scope which, she said, had escalated in cost from $1.5 billion to $10 billion. Feinstein also criticized the Administration’s budget request for NNSA’s nuclear terrorism prevention activities, calling it “a total backing away of a major commitment” to secure domestic and foreign radiological sources. An NNSA official explained that Russia is taking much more responsibility for the conversion of its own highly enriched uranium facilities, and briefly described cost-savings programs with international and domestic partners.
Alexander’s initial set of questions focused on the Administration’s intention to do a strategic review and possible divestiture of TVA facilities and the effect which this would have on tritium production. He also wanted to know about the production of plutonium pits following the Administration’s plan to defer the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement - Nuclear Facility (CMRR.) NNSA intends to satisfy the needs of the Department of Defense through plutonium pit reuse and the remanufacturing of pits.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) focused on NNSA’s program in South Carolina to use mixed oxide fuel disposition to convert 34 metric tons of Russian weapons grade material into commercial grade fuel. Graham was unhappy that the Administration has reduced funding for this program in its request, and as a result the senator has placed a hold on the nomination of Ernest Moniz to be the next secretary of energy, who Graham described as “a fine man.”
During his round of questions, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) asked about the delay in the construction of the CMRR. “I’m concerned about this delay because I believe that our workers and scientists deserve the best possible facilities to carry out their mission safely,” he said. He asked about the status of additional studies on the facility and when CMRR construction could begin. Miller replied that NNSA was “very, very concerned” about building construction costs that have sometimes quadrupled in only a few years. As a result, she said, and in conjunction with legislation passed in 2011 to limit all federal spending, the CMRR was deferred. NNSA is pursuing a multi-element strategy to produce pits in the interim, and over the longer term is examining the use of a modular approach for the acquisition of additional and new capacity.
Other issues raised during this hearing concerned NNSA’s management strategy, which Feinstein charged often did not consider all alternatives. Miller described how going forward, “accountability is going to be applied to absolutely everybody.” Feinstein also described the extension of management contracts for the Los Alamos and Livermore laboratories until at least 2018 and 2019 as “unbelievable” because of missed performance thresholds. Miller replied that each had a new director, and she was concerned that taking the “very strong step” of not making the awards would undermine the laboratories’ new directors, boards, and employees. “They’re on strong notice now that they got a one-time pass” Miller added.
‘Nothing seems to change” Feinstein said of NNSA’s overruns. Miller described new efforts being made to ensure accountability and other changes in NNSA’s management approach, with Feinstein replying, “Well, let me thank you. I’m very impressed.”
The April 24 hearing moved towards its conclusion with an exchange about the Naval Reactor program, anticipating and controlling costs for the weapons’ life extension programs, the challenge of facility modernization, and as Miller commented, the “havoc” of operating in an uncertain funding climate. Feinstein ended the hearing by describing her frustration with cost overruns while seeing the budget request for nonproliferation programs reduced. “We don’t want to be adversaries” she said, adding “we’ll talk again.”
Note: Quotations are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.