FY21 Budget Request: National Nuclear Security Administration

Publication date

The budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration would continue its recent rapid rise under the Trump administration’s latest proposal for the agency, jumping 18% to just under $20 billion.

Firing tank at High Explosives Applications Facility

A firing tank at the High Explosives Applications Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

(Image credit – NNSA)

Funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration would jump 18% to just under $20 billion under President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2021, accelerating the agency’s recent budgetary growth. Five years ago, NNSA’s topline stood near $11 billion, with the increases since then focused on modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and its associated infrastructure. NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty has argued the especially large surge proposed this year is needed to more quickly revitalize aging facilities across the nuclear enterprise.

The request has been the subject of considerable intrigue, with Gordon-Hagerty reportedly securing Trump’s personal support for the elevated level over the objections of White House budget officials and her immediate superior, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, who advocated a smaller increase. Further reporting has suggested the increase is motivated by previously undisclosed cost overruns. In probing the request, congressional hearings have to date centered on the status of warhead life extension programs, with little discussion of the proposals for science activities, as has been typical in recent years.

The request proposes a significant restructuring of the research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) programs that underpin NNSA’s annual certification of the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile. Tables with figures for these programs under the current and proposed structures are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker, as are figures for nuclear non-proliferation programs.

Weapons programs

The Weapons Activities account would increase 25% under the request to $15.6 billion, most of which would go to warhead life extension programs and infrastructure modernization. Within the current budget structure, total funding for RDT&E programs in this account would increase 6% to $2.5 billion.

Budget restructuring. The administration proposes to rename the RDT&E programs collectively as “Stockpile Research, Technology, and Engineering“ and adjust their internal account structure, such as by spinning off activities focused on university research into new budget lines. The RDT&E programs would also subsume some activities currently located elsewhere in NNSA’s budget, such as support for hydrodynamic and subcritical experiments, bringing the total amount requested to $2.8 billion. NNSA states the proposed structure “improves alignment with current and future scope, consolidates similar activities, and facilitates improved program execution by grouping activities by how they are managed.”

Assessment Science. The budget for Assessment Science would rise 30% to $773 million, with much of the increase directed toward developing a major new x-ray imaging capability called Advanced Sources and Detectors that will enable study of late-stage plutonium implosions. Given the longstanding moratorium on explosive nuclear testing observed by the U.S., NNSA states the project will fill a critical gap in capabilities needed to “evaluate the response of plutonium due to aging, modern manufacturing techniques, modern materials, [and] evolving design philosophies changes.”

The budget request notes the point estimate for the project’s total cost has increased from $792 million to $1.06 billion, which is at the upper end of its expected cost range. The request explains this growth is due to the selection of a particular type of power driver for the accelerator, the addition of extra heat removal capacity, and an increase in management contingency reserves.

As part of its focus on developing new imaging capabilities, NNSA plans to advance concepts for technologies that would enable “cinematographic radiography.” Used in conjunction with hydrodynamic and subcritical experiments, NNSA states, such a capability would offer “near-arbitrary frame rate of the time-evolution of a system under study [and] provide a robust test of the predictive capability of weapons design codes and help reduce the need for nuclear explosive testing.”

Advanced Simulation and Computing. Funding for Advanced Simulation and Computing would decrease 5% to $732 million, driven by a large drop in the budget for Advanced Technology Development and Mitigation. That subprogram would see its budget fall from $175 million to $40 million, with NNSA proposing to transfer R&D activities to other subprograms and “suspend new development of all next-generation simulations capabilities” in light of rapid changes underway in high performance computing architectures.

NNSA explains that the efficiency of current nuclear weapons simulation codes is “deteriorating” as they are migrated to the latest computing platforms and that the trend is expected to “accelerate on future platforms unless mitigated.” The remaining funds would be prioritized toward activities such as investigating new programming approaches and developing software for exascale computing applications. NNSA notes Lawrence Livermore National Lab is currently preparing for delivery of an exascale computing system in 2022 that will be ready for use by agency programs in 2023.

Sketching out its plans for developing next-generation capabilities, NNSA states it is considering how to use machine learning algorithms to “better manage complexity in physics-informed simulations.” It also notes it is exploring computing architectures beyond exascale, such as quantum computing and neuromorphic computing.

Stockpile Responsiveness Program. Within Engineering and Integrated Assessments, the budget for the recently created Stockpile Responsiveness Program would remain flat at $70 million after Congress doubled its budget last year. The request provides considerable new detail on the scope of the program, which aims to offer scientists and engineers opportunities to exercise the full set of skills involved in the nuclear weapons lifecycle.

NNSA states the highest priority is to “examine alternative approaches to design, manufacturing, certification and qualification to accelerate the timeline for the nuclear weapons lifecycle process and reduce costs.” It notes the program is currently supporting a design competition for a “potential future strategic missile warhead exploring different manufacturing approaches.” NNSA adds the program is not intended to “work around the established process for nuclear weapons system acquisition” but rather “explores the art of the possible by using potential responses to future threats to explore the acceleration of design, engineering, testing, production, and qualification methodologies that could increase responsiveness of the nuclear weapons complex.”

Inertial Confinement Fusion. After proposing steep cuts to ICF the past two budget cycles, NNSA now requests essentially level funding of $555 million. It notes there are several reviews of the program underway, including an assessment of the “scientific credibility of scaling arguments for all ignition approaches” as well as an assessment by the JASON science advisory panel of how ICF contributes to stockpile stewardship. NNSA states it plans to focus its ignition science activities on “driving down barriers to accessing weapons-relevant regimes.” As part of the proposed budget restructuring, the Joint Program in High Energy Density Laboratory Plasmas would be moved to the new Academic Programs account.

Plutonium production. NNSA proposes to increase funding for plutonium production infrastructure by 72% to $1.4 billion, with most of the new money directed toward Los Alamos National Laboratory. Congress recently mandated that NNSA develop the capacity to annually produce at least 80 plutonium nuclear weapons cores, called pits, by 2030. NNSA plans to produce at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos and the remainder at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina by repurposing the now-cancelled Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility.

In a draft environmental impact statement for the project, NNSA states the increased production capacity is needed to “mitigate against the risk of plutonium aging” as well as “respond to changes in deterrent requirements driven by growing threats from peer competitors.” Some advocacy groups have criticized the plans, in part by questioning the risk posed by plutonium aging. NNSA is holding a virtual public hearing on the Savannah River Site project on April 30.

Nuclear nonproliferation programs

The budget for the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account would fall 6% under the request to $2.03 billion, largely due to completion of cancellation activities for the MOX project.

Plutonium disposal. In lieu of the MOX project, which aimed to convert surplus weapons plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors, NNSA now plans to dilute the plutonium and dispose of it in a waste facility. It seeks to increase support for this new approach from $79 million to $149 million, while reducing funding for the wind-down of MOX from $220 million to zero.

Nuclear forensics initiative. NNSA proposes to launch a National Technical Nuclear Forensics R&D initiative funded at $80 million, drawing partly on resources from existing programs. The initiative will respond to priorities outlined in the interagency Nuclear Defense R&D Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2020-2024 and a forthcoming National Academies study on nuclear forensics. NNSA explains the effort aims to “elevate visibility and transparency of this work and to reflect NNSA’s emerging role as lead agency.”

Nonproliferation workforce. NNSA proposes to ramp up funding for the newly created Nonproliferation Stewardship Program from $23 million to $60 million. The effort aims to help ensure NNSA has the necessary foundational technical capabilities and workforce to address emerging threats. NNSA states, “Advances in manufacturing, computing, and other key areas, combined with easier access to nuclear-related information, are creating more diverse pathways to developing a nuclear weapon and have reduced and evolved the footprint and associated signatures of those activities.” It adds this problem is exacerbated by a current lack of a “large cadre of NNSA laboratory personnel with hands-on experience in sensitive fuel-cycle processes and nuclear weapons development and testing.”

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