The National Nuclear Security Administration proposes to ramp up funding for new plutonium experimentation and production facilities while paring back support for inertial confinement fusion in its latest budget request. Meanwhile, funding for nonproliferation programs would increase slightly overall.
Funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration would increase 8 percent to $16.5 billion under the Trump administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2020. Most of the increase would go to the Weapons Activities account, which would rise 12 percent to $12.4 billion, while the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account would increase 3 percent to $2 billion.
Within Weapons Activities, the budget for research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) programs would increase 13 percent to $2.3 billion. These programs underpin NNSA’s annual certification of the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. They also support efforts to develop a workforce and capabilities that are “responsive” to shifts in the global security landscape, a priority of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.
Detailed figures for selected programs are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.
Top appropriator skeptical of spending surge
NNSA’s Weapons Activities budget has risen rapidly in recent years to support a comprehensive modernization of the nuclear stockpile and its associated infrastructure. In justifying a further boost, NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty has stressed that more than half of the agency’s infrastructure is over forty years old at a time when it is facing its largest workload in decades.
At a House appropriations subcommittee hearing in April, she remarked, “NNSA's $16.5 billion budget request is a necessary investment when you consider the stakes. Russia and China are pursuing completely new nuclear capabilities, North Korea's intentions remain unclear, and we face the most complex and demanding global security environments since the end of the Cold War.”
However, the subcommittee’s chair, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), expressed skepticism about the proposed budget, saying, “These increases are simply not realistic given other constraints on the federal budget and [are] unsustainable year over year.” Kaptur also said she is “concerned that the administration is taking its foot off the gas pedal with respect to nonproliferation programs.”
Weapons Activities RDT&E
(Image credit – Los Alamos National Laboratory)
As it did last year, the administration proposes to boost its science, engineering, and advanced computing programs while paring back support for inertial confinement fusion. Notably, though, it does not repeat its proposal to withdraw from the OMEGA Laser Facility at the University of Rochester. Congress firmly rejected the move last year.
Science. The budget for the Science program would rise 22 percent to $587 million under the request. Most of the increase is slated for a recently created program called Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments (ECSE). Through the program, NNSA plans to build a new x-ray imaging system called “Scorpius” at the Nevada National Security Site that will address gaps in understanding of how plutonium behaves in the late stages of implosions. Scorpius is projected to cost between $500 million and $1.1 billion and begin operation in fiscal year 2025. The Department of Energy approved the cost range for the project in February, and the budget request includes $115 million for preliminary design work and long-lead procurements.
Such experiments inform NNSA’s certification of stockpile reliability in the absence of explosive underground testing, which has been halted since 1992. NNSA’s budget justification observes, “The stockpile is inherently moving away from the Underground Test database through aggregate influences of aging, modern manufacturing techniques, modern materials, and evolving design philosophies.”
Inertial Confinement Fusion. The administration proposes to cut the Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) program budget by 12 percent to $481 million, indicating the decrease reflects a shift in priorities away from the pursuit of fusion ignition. Under the request, funding for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory would drop from $344 million to $296 million. NNSA also flags the upcoming completion of an ignition feasibility assessment for NIF as a “seminal event” for the ICF program.
Under the request, the OMEGA Laser Facility would receive level funding of $80 million, and the ICF program’s support for the Z Pulsed Power Facility at Sandia National Laboratories would increase from $63 million to $67 million. Within the Pulsed Power program, $2 million of the increase would go toward a “comprehensive experimental investigation” of the Magnetic Direct Drive approach to achieving ignition. The budget also proposes a $3.5 million, 40 percent increase for the Joint High Energy Density Laboratory Plasmas program that NNSA operates in partnership with the DOE Office of Science.
Engineering. The Engineering program budget would increase 23 percent to $234 million under the request. Within this amount, funding for the recently launched Stockpile Responsiveness Program would increase from $34 million to $40 million. The program is designed to provide scientists and engineers with opportunities to exercise all the skills associated with the nuclear weapons life cycle. NNSA indicates a priority for the upcoming year will be to “conduct a design competition associated with potential future strategic missile warheads exploring different manufacturing approaches” than those used for current systems.
Advanced Simulation and Computing. As part of DOE’s broader pursuit of exascale-class computing capabilities, the administration proposes to increase the Advanced Simulation and Computing program budget 17 percent to $840 million.
Selected infrastructure projects
Plutonium production. In recent hearings, Gordon-Hagerty has said her “highest priority” is reestablishing NNSA’s capability to manufacture large numbers of plutonium pits, which constitute the cores of nuclear weapons. The Department of Defense has said it needs NNSA to produce at least 80 pits per year by 2030. According to a recent NNSA press release, this production rate is necessary for “enhancing warhead safety, mitigating risks against plutonium aging, and responding to an uncertain future due to renewed global competition.”
To meet this target, NNSA has proposed splitting pit production between Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Los Alamos would be responsible for 30 pits per year and remain the nation’s center of excellence for plutonium R&D, while Savannah River would produce the remaining 50 pits per year. Under the budget request, funding for the Plutonium Sustainment account would nearly double to $712 million, of which $410 million would support design activities for the Savannah River production facility.
The two-site proposal has faced pushback from members of the New Mexico congressional delegation, who argue it is too expensive. NNSA points out, though, that Los Alamos was never meant to be a major pit production facility and contends that having multiple production sites would increase the resiliency of the enterprise.
Other strategic materials. NNSA is also working to modernize facilities that produce and process other “strategic” materials, such as tritium, lithium, and uranium. For instance, NNSA requests $27 million to begin work on a Tritium Finishing Facility, which would replace a 60-year-old building. The project is projected to cost up to $540 million.
High explosive research facility. NNSA requests $123 million to build a High Explosive Science and Engineering Facility at the Pantex Plant in Texas. The primary stated motivation for the project is that current high explosive personnel are spread across 15 facilities that are, on average, more than 60 years old.
Facility repair. NNSA and Congress have recently focused on reducing the agency’s large backlog of deferred maintenance projects. The budget request would maintain total funding infrastructure repair and recapitalization at its currently elevated level of about $1 billion.
Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation
Plutonium disposal. NNSA requests $220 million to close out construction of the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, a partially complete plutonium conversion facility at the Savannah River Site that the administration terminated last year due to ballooning costs. In lieu of the MOX project, NNSA requests $79 million to begin a Surplus Plutonium Disposition Project that would enable the agency to dilute and dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium.
Proliferation R&D. Funding for Proliferation Detection R&D program would increase 8 percent to $304 million in support of a “nonproliferation stewardship initiative.” The effort would aim to “sustain the requisite technical competencies, based on enabling infrastructure, science and technology, and workforce expertise, that are needed to support policymakers and future nonproliferation missions.”
Radiological materials security. Funding for programs to secure radiological materials domestically and internationally would decrease by $37 million and to $91 million and by $18 million to $61 million, respectively. The budget justification states the reduced levels reflect a “return to the baseline budget” after Congress provided extra funds last year to secure cesium-based devices.
HEU reactor conversion. The administration proposes to undo a recent move by Congress to subsume the high-enriched uranium reactor conversion program into NNSA’s Nonproliferation R&D Program. The administration maintains the program is “no longer doing any R&D work” and that fabrication of high-density low-enriched uranium fuel for research reactors is now in its demonstration and deployment phase.