Final FY21 Appropriations: National Nuclear Security Administration

Publication date

The National Security Administration budget is surging by $3 billion to nearly $20 billion for fiscal year 2021, with most of the increase directed to modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and associated infrastructure.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s appropriation for fiscal year 2021 increases the agency’s budget by $3 billion to just under $20 billion, nearly matching what the Trump administration requested.

Most of the additional funding is for modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and associated infrastructure, building on a budget surge that began in 2015 when NNSA’s topline stood near $11 billion. The legislation also increases funding for nuclear nonproliferation programs by $96 million to $2.26 billion, distributed across efforts to secure nuclear materials domestically and abroad, as well as efforts to minimize their use and detect clandestine nuclear activities.

An explanatory statement accompanying the legislation provides funding and policy direction, and language from the House Appropriations Committee report conveys additional direction unless specifically negated in the final statement. The Senate Appropriations Committee did not formally submit its report, but language from a publicly released draft is incorporated in the explanatory statement. For summary tables, consult the FYI Federal Science Budget Tracker.

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Nuclear stockpile modernization

NNSA’s budget was the subject of a major dispute within the Trump administration last year, in which President Trump ultimately sided with then-NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty against then-Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, who argued for a smaller increase. Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe (R-OK) agreed with Gordon-Hagerty that stockpile modernization should proceed aggressively and the agency’s appropriation reflects that point of view.

Part of NNSA’s budget increase is for efforts to manufacture the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons, known as “pits,” to replace aging ones in the existing stockpile. The agency has lacked large-scale pit production facilities since the 1989 closure of its Rocky Flats facility in Colorado and it is working to reconstitute these capabilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Per a statutory requirement, NNSA is aiming to produce at least 80 pits per year across both sites by 2030, and the appropriation increases the program budget for pit production from $798 million to $1.37 billion in support of that goal.

However, via the House report, Congress notes that an independent assessment of NNSA’s plans concluded that the program’s timetable is likely infeasible. Accordingly, it directs NNSA to submit a plan that addresses “options to ramp up pit production that extend the current need dates for pit production; how the hedge and fielded stockpile could be configured to serve as an interim solution; and an estimate of how many years current pit production need dates could be extended by advancing pit reuse concepts.”

In addition, Congress raises concerns about “the apparent lack of focus on advancing knowledge regarding pit and plutonium aging” following a 2006 study on the matter by the JASON science advisory panel. It continues, “Given the future needs of the nation's nuclear deterrent, a robust program of research and experimentation is needed. Therefore, NNSA is directed to develop a comprehensive, integrated 10 year research program for pit and plutonium aging that represents a consensus program among the national laboratories and federal sponsors.”

Weapons research, development, and testing

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A schematic of changes to NNSA’s weapons R&D budget structure.  (Image credit – Congressional Research Service)

schematic of changes to NNSA’s weapons R&D budget structure.

(Image credit – Congressional Research Service)

R&D budget restructure. Congress accepts NNSA’s proposal to restructure its weapons R&D activities within a new account called Stockpile Research, Technology, and Engineering. The account includes a new budget line dedicated to university-based programs and subsumes certain activities from elsewhere in NNSA’s budget. Congress funds the new topline account at $2.81 billion, a 10% increase over the equivalent accounts in fiscal year 2020, slightly exceeding the request.

Stockpile verification. Much of the weapons R&D portfolio supports the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which employs various scientific capabilities to certify the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile without resorting to explosive nuclear testing. Responding to reports the Trump administration had considered ending the moratorium on explosive testing, the House proposed to prevent any prior or current year funds from being used to “conduct, or make specific preparations for, any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.” Congress omitted that provision from the final legislation, though it retained House language directing NNSA to report on “major science questions facing the Stockpile Stewardship Program over the next 20 years” and on its plans to “ensure continued confidence in the stockpile without nuclear explosive testing.” During his campaign for president, Joe Biden called the idea of resuming explosive nuclear weapons testing “as reckless as it is dangerous” and the issue is unlikely to be revisited under his administration.

Stockpile Responsiveness Program. To complement the Stockpile Stewardship Program, Congress created the Stockpile Responsiveness Program in 2017 to offer lab personnel opportunities to exercise a broader range of skills associated with the weapons lifecycle, such as weapons design. While the program’s budget has quickly grown to $70 million, the House proposed to slash it to $5 million. The final legislation maintains the budget at $70 million, while retaining House language directing NNSA to provide a detailed account of current activities as well as “timely updates on the status of any new and existing taskings, studies, and assessments.” In its budget request, NNSA sought to assure appropriators that the program is not intended to “work around the established process for nuclear weapons system acquisition.”

Assessment Science. Through the Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments program, NNSA is developing a new X-ray imaging capability to enable research on the late stages of plutonium implosions and close a “physics gap” in its ability to certify future warheads without explosive testing. The legislation increases the program’s budget by almost 50% to $216 million as requested. In lieu of House language that registers concern with “recent cost increases and the acquisition approach,” Congress directs NNSA to report on its contingency plan if the project is not completed on schedule. In its budget request, NNSA disclosed the total cost point estimate for the project has increased from $792 million to $1.06 billion, which is at the upper end of its expected cost range.

Inertial Confinement Fusion. The ICF budget is increasing $8.5 million to $575 million, with Congress directing NNSA to allocate at least $349 million for the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, $5 million above the minimum it specified last year, and at least $82 million for the OMEGA Laser Facility at the University of Rochester, $2 million above last year’s minimum. It also allocates at least $67 million for the Z Facility at Sandia National Labs, as it did last year. Under the budget restructuring, the High Energy Density Laboratory Plasmas program is moved to the new Academic Programs account and funded at $8.7 million, a marginal increase.

Academic Programs. The total budget for Academic Programs is increasing $15 million to $102 million, with $35 million specified for the Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program, a $10 million increase. Via the House report, Congress also directs NNSA to allocate $6 million toward establishing an advanced manufacturing research center focused on ways to “evaluate, diagnose, and control materials for production and manufacturing purposes.” It stipulates that the center be led by “a university with a school of engineering that has expertise in lifetime extension research and materials science.”

Nuclear nonproliferation

Workers remove a cesium-137 irradiator from Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in 2018.  (Image credit – NNSA)

Workers remove a cesium-137 irradiator from Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in 2018.

(Image credit – NNSA)

Cesium cleanup. Through its Cesium Irradiator Replacement Program, NNSA helps hospitals transition away from using blood irradiators that contain the radioactive isotope cesium-137. Congress directs NNSA to allocate at least $65 million to the program, a $20 million increase over the minimum specified last year. Of the total, $30 million is allocated to cleanup of cesium spilled in 2019 during the removal of a blood irradiator at a Seattle medical center. Congress permitted NNSA to spend up to $20 million on cleanup last fiscal year, and NNSA has estimated the task will cost up to $60 million in total.

Nuclear forensics. Congress endorses NNSA’s proposal to create a National Technical Nuclear Forensics R&D Program and seeks an associated strategic plan that includes cost estimates for establishing new forensics labs. It stipulates the plan must evaluate the merits and cost of creating a “low-background radiation laboratory capability with access to Category I special nuclear materials representative of both weapons and commercial uses to support activities such as accelerator-based photonuclear, neutron activation, chemistry and isotope separation, treaty verification, and technical capabilities enabling emergency response.” The plan is also expected to evaluate the benefits of creating an “analytical test laboratory that is co-located with criticality assembly irradiation capabilities allowing near-real-time measurements of early decay products.”

Nonproliferation workforce. Congress ramps up funding for the recently established Nonproliferation Stewardship Program from $23 million to $60 million as requested. The effort aims to help ensure NNSA has the foundational technical capabilities and workforce needed to address emerging threats, such as manufacturing technology advances that provide new means of illicitly producing nuclear weapons.

Low-enriched uranium fuel. Congress increases the Nonproliferation Fuels Development program budget from $15 million to $20 million in support of efforts to create a low-enriched alternative to the highly enriched uranium fuels currently used by nuclear-powered naval vessels. The administration requested no funds for the effort, maintaining that such fuel would be impractical and costly for the Navy to use.

Mo-99 production. Over the past decade, NNSA has supported private-sector efforts to develop domestic production methods for the medical radioisotope molybdenum-99 that do not use highly enriched uranium. Congress provides $50 million to support a new competitively awarded funding opportunity for domestic suppliers, $15 million more than it specified last year.

Plutonium disposal. In 2018, NNSA pulled the plug on a beleaguered project to convert surplus weapons-grade plutonium into commercially usable nuclear fuel, and last year Congress provided it with a final appropriation of $220 million for termination activities. Now, Congress is ramping up funding for NNSA’s alternative strategy of diluting the plutonium and disposing of it at a waste site, providing the requested budget of $149 million.

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