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Jul. 31—President Joe Biden's recent proposal for nuclear weapons spending at the Department of Energy is just enough to cover near-term needs but falls short of guaranteeing the nation's cataclysmic arsenal can stay the course and be modernized, officials said last week in a dispatch to Congress.
Biden's fiscal year 2022 request for the National Nuclear Security Administration's weapons work — some $15.5 billion — "is minimally sufficient," the Nuclear Weapons Council certified in a July 23 letter signed by Chairwoman Stacy A. Cummings. The suggested sum is effectively stagnant due to inflation, the letter continues, and "injects risk into the longer term schedule"; poor funding, the two-page letter concludes, is a hazard not only to project price tags and timelines, but to national security.
"As has been stated multiple times, the DOE/NNSA production complex has significantly atrophied and impacts to the deterrent will be unavoidable if not addressed," wrote Cummings, who also handles acquisition at the Pentagon.
The Nuclear Weapons Council is an Energy and Defense leadership amalgam, designed to better coordinate the development and production of nuclear arms. Simply put, the Energy Department maintains the U.S. nuclear arsenal; the Defense Department delivers it.
Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., this week amplified the council's budgetary concerns, while monitors and other independent watchdogs sounded the alarm.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the leading Republicans on the Senate and House Armed Services committees, issued a joint statement Tuesday arguing the White House's budget minimizes the threat posed by Russian and Chinese competition, putting the U.S. on its heels.
"The letter we received yesterday from the Nuclear Weapons Council highlights what we've been saying for months: National security spending that does not keep up with inflation is insufficient to safeguard this nation," the duo said.
Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, on Wednesday similarly said such "bare-bones funding is dangerous. With Russia and China aggressively investing in their nuclear arsenals, the United States can no longer lack the critical infrastructure necessary to keep Americans safe." (China's nuclear stockpile is dwarfed by U.S. and Russian stockpiles, respectively, and the number of nuclear weapons worldwide has dropped significantly since the Cold War.)
Wilson's congressional district, the Palmetto State's 2nd, includes the Savannah River Site and all of Aiken County. The entrenched congressman often advocates for significant investment in the site — a guarded reservation on its way to being the epicenter of plutonium pit production, or the crafting of nuclear weapon cores.
The Energy Department has "reached a pivotal moment in its nuclear modernization program," Cummings wrote in the Nuclear Weapons Council letter, as warhead work ramps up and behemoth infrastructure ventures, like pit production, mature. The plutonium pit factory at the SRS, which could cost $11 billion, was greenlighted by the federal government in late June.
"The current deployed pits are aging upwards of 60 years, with each additional year jeopardizing reliability. Resiliency and redundancy plans for plutonium pit production, which includes the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, are vital to maintaining peace through strength when facing our adversaries," said Wilson, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in June said his "greatest infrastructure concern" is "any delay" that translates to missed deadlines for the plutonium cores. But defense officials have already suggested the planned SRS pit plant will be years behind the curve.
Stephen Young, a senior Washington representative with the Union of Concerned Scientists, on Friday said the Nuclear Weapons Council letter states "the obvious": that the NNSA workload is immense, "and, if the current plan is retained, costs will continue to rise dramatically. It ignores the reality that the NNSA won't be able to meet the deadlines in the plan and that costs will rise even more than currently estimated."
Kingston Reif, a nuclear weapons expert at the Arms Control Association, echoed Young in a separate exchange with the Aiken Standard.
"The certification letter is but the latest giant flashing red warning sign indicating that the current nuclear modernization plan cannot be achieved on budget or on schedule," he said. "It is not at all clear that the Biden administration fully appreciates the magnitude of the challenge it is facing."
A substantial swath of NNSA infrastructure is decades old. Council members agree, Cummings emphasized, that "there is no area in need of more immediate attention than our Manhattan Project-era nuclear security enterprise facilities supporting our Cold War-era nuclear stockpile."
The NNSA's proposed weapons purse represents the vast majority of the $19.7 billion request for the broader agency, which also has its hands in nonproliferation and naval reactors.
Wilson, Rogers, Inhofe and more than a dozen other members of Congress in January 2020 lobbied then-President Donald Trump to support $20 billion in funding for the NNSA. Anything less, they said, would be worrisome, would embolden Democrats and would irreversibly delay certain warhead programs.
"This should be a clarifying moment for the administration," Reif said Friday. "The (Nuclear Weapons Council) letter makes it clear that enormous increases above inflation will be required to attempt to execute the NNSA modernization effort in future years."