The Obama administration will propose a deep cut in funding for nuclear nonproliferation programs at the Energy Department largely so it can boost the department's spending to modernize its stockpile of nuclear weapons, according to government officials familiar with the proposed 2014 federal budget to be unveiled Wednesday, April 10.
The half-billion-dollar shift in spending priorities reflects an administration decision that nuclear explosives work the Energy Department performs for the military should be both accelerated and expanded. But Democrats on Capitol Hill and independent arms control groups predicted the decision will provoke controversy and a substantial budget fight this year.
Under the 2014 proposal, the Energy Department's nuclear weapons activities funding -- which includes modernization efforts for bomber-based and missile-based warheads -- would be increased roughly 7 percent, or around $500 million, above the current level of $7.227 billion for these activities.
The department's nonproliferation programs, aimed at diminishing the security threat posed by fissile materials in other countries that can be used for nuclear weapons, would be cut by roughly 20 percent, or $460 million, below the current level of $2.45 billion, the officials said.
The new weapons-related spending would expand efforts to upgrade the W76, W88, W78, and B-61 warheads, and help fund construction of a new facility in Tennessee for processing uranium, a nuclear explosive used in these and other warheads. These programs have experienced billions of dollars in cost overruns in recent years, forcing the administration to look elsewhere in the DOE budget to find the money it needs to keep them alive.
Much of the reduction in nonproliferation spending -- around $183 million -- would come from a controversial plant designed to transform excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal into fuel for reactors that generate electricity, known as the Mixed-Oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant in Savannah River, South Carolina. That plant was initially budgeted at $1.8 billion, but the price tag has ballooned to at least $7.5 billion, provoking widespread criticism and allegations of mismanagement.
The plant is about 60 percent completed, but one senior administration official called it "managerially and programmatically, a nightmare," with continuously rising costs.
Under the Obama administration's proposal for fiscal year 2014, spending for the MOX plant would be around $330 million, or 47 percent of the budget it was supposed to get next year. Its construction would be greatly slowed, while the Defense Department and the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration study alternative ways to safeguard tons of the excess plutonium.
Secretary of Energy nominee Ernest Moniz, speaking at a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, ducked multiple questions from Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) about whether he supports completing the MOX plant. "I will certainly look into this with high priority" if confirmed, he told Scott.
Under the Obama proposal, the budget for other DOE work related to nuclear nonproliferation would also be curtailed by about $277 million. That would include a 16 percent cut in spending on efforts to halt the use of fissile material in civilian nuclear reactors and collect or secure weapons-usable fissile materials in other countries; an 8 percent cut in spending on policy to control the spread of nuclear weapons-related technologies; and a 36 percent cut in efforts to monitor potential illicit commerce in fissile materials.
Only one category of Energy Department nonproliferation work would be increased -- research and development, mostly to finance work on a new nuclear detonation sensor to be placed about Air Force satellites.
The priority shift "is going to be a disaster," said a Democratic congressional aide, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the budget before its official release. "These cuts are going to be huge," and will be particularly problematic amid budget boosts for weapons programs that many lawmakers believe "have been mismanaged for the last five to six years."
Joan Rohlfing, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit arms control group founded by Ted Turner and former Sen. Sam Nunn, said, "the U.S. programs for securing, reducing and eliminating weapons-usable nuclear materials are a critical part of our strategy for combating nuclear terrorism and preventing the proliferation of these deadly dangerous materials...A decision to significantly cut these programs, including our near-term ability to dispose of excess plutonium, would be a setback to our ability to reach critical security goals."
As recently as December 3, President Obama described the government's nuclear nonproliferation efforts -- including some directed by the Defense Department -- as "one of our most important national security programs." Speaking at the National Defense University, Obama said the effort was "nowhere near done. Not by a long shot." He also proudly said the government has been "increasing funding, and sustaining it....because our national security depends on it."