President Donald Trump will request a 20 percent budget increase for the nation’s nuclear programs next year, which likely would funnel more money toward pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory and South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, according to congressional sources and watchdog groups.
Trump is backing the National Nuclear Security Administration’s $20 billion budget request for fiscal year 2021, a hefty bump from this year’s $16.7 billion as the agency looks to fulfill the goal of producing 80-plus plutonium pits by 2030 to arm a new generation of missile warheads.
However, when the agency’s head, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, first proposed the beefier funding last week, the president, budget officials and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette rejected it as too exorbitant and reduced it to $17.5 billion, according to Defense News.
The haggling took place ahead of the agency’s scheduled release Feb. 10 of its fiscal year 2021 budget.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a strong proponent of expanding U.S. nuclear capabilities, told reporters this week he and other lawmakers persuaded Trump the larger boost in funding was necessary to deter the rising nuclear threats from adversaries such as Russia and China.
Trump, in turn, overruled Brouillette and Mick Mulvaney, who heads the Office of Budget and Management, and will ask Congress to approve the higher spending.
Inhofe’s office didn’t respond Thursday to emailed questions. The offices of Sens. Tom Udall’s and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján declined to comment on the proposed budget until the agency makes it public.
Nuclear watchdogs slammed what they say is excessive spending to launch a new nuclear arms race.
“We maintain a total nuclear weapons arsenal of some 4,000 active weapons,” said Geoff Wilson, policy analyst at the nonprofit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, in an emailed statement. “Perhaps instead of doubling down on an outrageous new nuclear weapons spending plan, we should reengage in our commitments to reduce these weapons through international arms control agreements and treaties.”
The Los Alamos lab received $253 million this year to work toward ramping up production of pits, the explosive nuclear cores that detonate warheads. The current goal is for the lab to make 30 of the pits by 2026.
Savannah River Site is slated to manufacture 50 pits by 2030, a more costly endeavor because it involves converting its stalled mixed-oxide fuel plant into a facility that makes weapons-grade plutonium cores. It received almost double the Los Alamos lab’s allocation.
Critics say the federal government is throwing more money at two ill-equipped sites with the hope of making them churn out nuclear cores.
The agency’s fatter budget would no doubt inject significantly more funding into the lab’s pit production, perhaps more than the plutonium operation — with aging facilities and a history of safety problems — can handle, said Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group.
“It’s a staggering increase that the lab can’t absorb,” Mello said.
Mello, who has tracked the agency’s funding for decades, said last year’s 11 percent budget increase well surpassed the single-digit increases that were typical in previous years. The current proposal almost doubles that sizable budget hike, he said.
Modernizing the nuclear arsenal will cost about $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.
The government would not need to spend billions of dollars to produce new pits and could instead use the thousands of pits amassed during the Cold War if it wasn’t developing new warheads that require a different sized core, Mello said.
One such warhead is the W87-1, which would be part of a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Will the production of a new warhead necessitate new explosive nuclear testing?” Wilson said. “The further we stray from existing warhead designs, the higher the likelihood that calls for explosive testing will resume.”