Analysis: NNSA downplays weapons

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By Roger Snodgrass

The national nuclear weapons chief emphasized transformation plans leading to eventual savings and efficiencies during a teleconference on the FY 2009 budget Thursday, although the budget request continues to grow.Of his four main themes, Thomas D’Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the first was the shift of the nuclear weapons complex designed for the Cold War to a 21st century national security enterprise. The second was an emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation and counterterrorism.D’Agostino touted the administration’s accelerated program for dismantling nuclear warheads, noting the president’s commitment to cut the stockpile in half by 2012.“We’ll meet that challenge three years early,” D’Agostino said.NNSA’s budget request calls for a 3 percent increase over the FY 2008 appropriation of $8.8 billion that was bundled into an omnibus appropriation bill early this year.Shortly after that, the administration came forward with a $9.1 billion request for NNSA next year, about 36 percent of the Energy Department’s budget. DOE’s nuclear cleanup budget accounts for another 25 percent of the request.Continuing priorities, D’Agostino said, included securing and maintaining the nuclear stockpile and advancing in the scientific and technical areas, with special attention toward developing the work force of tomorrow.

The transformation plans include reducing the footprint of the complex by millions of feet and consolidating weapons-grade nuclear materials in a smaller number of locations.For now, the agency has withdrawn an aggressive long-range plan for developing the “replacement” warheads, which were once considered the enabling driver for transforming the complex.“We want to make sure we keep the work moving forward,” D’Agostino said. “It would be important and financially responsible to tie a ribbon around that so that the next group can carry the ball forward.”Last year’s request for $89 million for the Reliable Replacement Warhead was zeroed out in the House appropriations committee and was not restored in the final budget.A study last year by the national security advisory group JASON on the feasibility of the RRW proposal concluded that the case was not yet conclusive and called for “further development” of the certification plan.That work would begin again next year if Congress approves it.Without a congressional consensus, D’Agostino said, the emphasis would be on “pulling together enough information that future administrations will have an opportunity to evaluate improving the safety and security of our nuclear complex.”Congress has called for a 12-person commission to provide a comprehensive report on nuclear policy by Dec. 1.D’Agostino was asked about the doubling of the budget for the proposed Chemical and Metallurgy Replacement Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was estimated in the $745 million to $975 million range in June 2005.The budget request stated that new estimates “place the revised TPC (Total Project Costs) above $2 billion.”D’Agostino said that a baseline budget has not been established yet for the project, but the estimated range for the Nuclear Facility in particular – the building that would house nuclear material – had gone up.He said the CMRR building would be needed at LANL “whether we build one pit or 50 or zero pits.”He added, “Just to maintain the existing stockpile, we have to have the ability to cut open the Cold War pit.”