FY20 Appropriations Bills: National Nuclear Security Administration

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Both the House and Senate propose substantial budget increases for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons R&D and nonproliferation programs, matching or exceeding the president’s request in many instances.

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved spending legislation this month that would boost the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget 11% to $16.9 billion for fiscal year 2020, exceeding the president’s request for $16.5 billion. The counterpart spending bill the House passed in June proposes a 4% increase to $15.9 billion.

The increases are largely directed toward efforts to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and associated infrastructure, continuing a multi-year budget surge. The final budget awaits the outcome of broader negotiations that could continue well into the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Congress and the White House have already agreed to a stopgap measure that will extend current funding levels through Nov. 21.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committee reports on their respective spending bills specify program-level funding proposals and priorities. Proposals for selected budget lines are collected in the FYI Federal Science Budget Tracker, and highlights for weapons and nonproliferation R&D programs are summarized below.

Weapons Activities

NNSA’s weapons research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) activities support the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which the agency uses to certify the reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile without resorting to explosive testing. The House matches the administration’s request to boost weapons RDT&E programs 13% to $2.28 billion, while the Senate proposes a 21% increase to $2.44 billion.

FY20 Budget Proposals: National Nuclear Security Administration

Inertial Confinement Fusion. The House and Senate both reject the administration’s proposal to pare back NNSA’s inertial confinement fusion (ICF) program from $545 million to $481 million, instead proposing increases to $565 million and $570 million, respectively.

The Senate specifies that NNSA should provide at least level funding for its three main facilities: $344 million for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California, $80 million for the OMEGA Laser Facility at the University of Rochester in New York, and $63 million for the Z Facility at Sandia National Labs in New Mexico. The House recommends level funding for NIF, “not less than” $80 million for OMEGA, and a 6% increase for the Z Facility.

Ignition assessment. Both committee reports direct NNSA to commission a broad assessment of the ICF program and its efforts to achieve the elusive goal of fusion ignition. While acknowledging NNSA has performed an internal review of the matter, the House committee states it believes an independent review is warranted. It directs the agency to contract with the JASON science advisory panel to complete a study by September 2020 on “the value and effectiveness of ignition science activities needed to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear stockpile and as a pipeline to recruit highly skilled expertise.” It continues, “If it is determined that ignition science activities are necessary to maintain the nuclear stockpile, the review shall recommend and prioritize research areas that would improve the ICF program’s pursuit of ignition.”

The Senate report includes analogous language, though it has different emphases, such as directing the JASON study to “assess the status of international competition and the United States’ ability to avoid technological surprise.”

Pulsed power assessment. The Senate report also includes a separate tasking specific to pulsed power capabilities, in which electrical energy is used to generate intense bursts of X-rays and gamma rays. Concentrated at Sandia National Labs, these capabilities support a range of stockpile stewardship and science missions.

The Senate committee states it is “concerned that near peer adversaries are developing a capability to eclipse the scientific leadership of the United States with regard to pulsed power experiments and technology.” It directs NNSA to report to Congress on plans to “meet or exceed proposed near peer technological developments” in this area and to provide “a preliminary budget to build or modify existing facilities to address shortfalls and prevent a technological surprise.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) raised such concerns about the status of U.S. pulsed power capabilities relative to those of China at an appropriations committee hearing this year. In response, an NNSA official noted that Sandia National Labs is working with intelligence agencies to “do a broader assessment of where the entire world is going with pulsed power and what our response should be to that.”

HERMES III pulsed power machine

The HERMES III pulsed power machine produces intense gamma-ray radiation that can be used to simulate the effects of nuclear blasts on electronics.

(Image credit – Randy Montoya / Sandia National Labs)

Science. Both the House and Senate propose to boost the Science program budget 24% to $594 million, slightly exceeding the requested amount. The House matches the $145 million requested for the Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments program, which is developing a major new facility for subcritical nuclear tests, while the Senate only provides $125 million.

As justification for withholding funds, the Senate report states, “While the committee recognizes the importance of this project, there is not a clear, consistent set of requirements or a plan to meet those requirements. Furthermore, the committee directs NNSA to identify and execute opportunities to further the proliferation detection research and development agenda as part of the project.”

Both chambers reject the administration’s request to pare back support for the Academic Alliances and Partnerships program, which funds research and workforce development efforts at universities. Notably, the Senate proposes a 31% budget increase and encourages NNSA to fund new centers of excellence, “especially in the field of materials under extreme conditions research.”

Engineering. The House and Senate sharply split on NNSA’s recently launched Stockpile Responsiveness Program, which aims to complement the Stockpile Stewardship Program by providing lab personnel with opportunities to exercise a fuller set of skills associated with weapons design and production. The Senate proposes to nearly triple the program’s current budget to $100 million while the House seeks to slash it to $5 million. No explanation is given for either figure, though the Senate’s version of the pending National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) recommends increasing funding to expand the program beyond NNSA’s laboratories to encompass its production facilities.

Advanced Simulation and Computing. The House and Senate bills would both raise the Advanced Simulation and Computing program budget by 17% to $840 million, as requested. Emphasizing the potential applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning to NNSA’s stockpile stewardship responsibilities as well as other national security missions, the Senate report directs NNSA to provide a five-year plan with preliminary budget estimates for using these capabilities throughout the agency.

Low-yield warhead. In line with a provision in the House NDAA, the House spending bill rejects the $10 million requested to complete NNSA’s work on a low-yield warhead intended for use in sea-launched cruise missiles. Proponents of the warhead claim it is needed to deter Russia from using small-scale nuclear weapons, while opponents assert it will increase the danger of conflicts escalating into full-scale nuclear war.

Plutonium production. NNSA is working to ramp up its capacity to build new cores of nuclear weapons, known as plutonium pits, to replace aging ones in the current stockpile. To meet a production target of 80 pits per year by 2030, NNSA has proposed to repurpose a cancelled plutonium disposal project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina into a production facility that would produce 50 pits per year, with the remainder produced at Los Alamos National Lab.

Partially to support initial design work on the new facility, NNSA requested to nearly double the Plutonium Sustainment account to $712 million. The Senate bill proposes $720 million for the account, while the House specifies $471 million, equal to the amount recommended in the House NDAA, which includes language directing NNSA to prioritize work on ramping up production at Los Alamos.

Nuclear Nonproliferation

The House and Senate’s proposals for nuclear nonproliferation programs broadly align, both proposing budget increases of about 8% overall, exceeding the administration’s request for a 3% increase to $2 billion.

Plutonium disposal. The House and Senate bills both provide the $79 million requested to support NNSA’s new “dilute and dispose” strategy for surplus plutonium it is pursuing in lieu of completing the multi-billion dollar Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site. Both bills also provide $220 million to continue MOX project cancellation activities.

Nonproliferation detection R&D. NNSA requested to increase the proliferation detection program by $22.5 million to $304 million to launch a “nonproliferation stewardship initiative” that would support “strategic review of current capabilities, long-term planning, and initial testbed development to build critical capabilities.” The Senate bill explicitly supports this request and creates a new budget line for the initiative. The House bill is silent on the initiative though it proposes $314 million for the overall proliferation detection program, which gives NNSA budgetary room to launch the effort. The House also specifies that funds above the budget request should go toward advancing “capabilities to detect and characterize low-yield and evasive underground nuclear explosions.”

HEU reactor conversion. The House and Senate bills propose $99 million for efforts to reduce reliance on reactors that require highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel and accept NNSA’s request to transfer management of these funds out of the nonproliferation R&D program.

Mo-99 production. The House and Senate propose $40 million and $10 million, respectively, for the Laboratory and Partnership Support program, which supports efforts to establish domestic production sources for the medical radioisotope molybdenum-99 that do not use HEU. The House specifies that $35 million should go toward “a new competitively awarded funding opportunity to expedite the establishment of a stable domestic source of Mo-99.”

Uranium fuels. Both the House and Senate specify $15 million for development of low-enriched uranium fuels that could replace the HEU fuel used in naval reactors. Noting that the Navy’s aircraft carriers and submarines currently rely on HEU from weapons that have been removed from the nuclear stockpile, the Senate also encourages NNSA’s Naval Reactors program to ensure it can meet the Navy’s long-term needs for HEU.

Cesium irradiators. NNSA works to secure and replace blood irradiators that rely on the radioisotope cesium-137. The House specifies $20 million for the Cesium Irradiator Replacement Project, while the Senate specifies $35 million, of which $10 million allocated for cleanup efforts associated with a recent irradiator spill at a hospital in Seattle, Washington. The Senate report also directs the Government Accountability Office to assess the technology readiness of non-radioisotopic alternatives for medical and industrial technologies that rely on radioisotopes.


Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) as Mark Udall, a former Democratic senator for Colorado.

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