A Continuing Resolution Could Hurt America's Nuclear Weapons Modernization
A long-term continuing resolution (a type of appropriations legislation) will result in delays for modernizing America’s nuclear warheads, while putting at risk an already challenging plan to build plutonium pits needed for the next generation of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear officials are warning.
The NNSA is a semiautonomous agency under the DOE that handles the manufacturing and maintenance of America’s nuclear warheads. Like other government agencies, NNSA would be limited to fiscal 2019 funding limits under a continuing resolution, and would be unable to start new contracts. The current continuing resolution (CR) is set to end Nov. 21, but there is little expectation that regular budgeting will then resume. Congress is debating the merits of pushing the continuing resolution through December, but analysts are concerned it could extend into next year.
“We are in a situation right now where we have single-point failures throughout our enterprise,” Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the NNSA administrator, said during a Defense Writers Group breakfast earlier this month. “It’s necessary for us, for the NNSA and for the nuclear security enterprise to receive consistent and robust funding to modernize our infrastructure as well as continue ongoing operations.”
“We’re looking at where we can move funding insofar as CRs will allow us to do so,” she added. “We’re working very closely with OMB and the administration to see what we can do to continue our important programs to modernize the infrastructure as well as the stockpile and our workforce initiatives and our endeavors.”
According to an NNSA source, the agency has identified three main areas of concern under a longer CR. The first is keeping the warhead modernization efforts on schedule. Two of those modernization programs — the B61-12 gravity bomb and W88 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead — already face program delays thanks to an issue with a commercial part that has to be redesigned.
The second is the surplus plutonium disposition program, which is supposed to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium at a South Carolina facility. That program emerged as the successor to the controversial MOX program, and has faced opposition from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Construction on that facility could be delayed under a CR.
The third is a 10-year plan to develop a native plutonium pit in the United States. The NNSA has been charged with producing 80 plutonium pits a year by 2030, a target that Gordon-Hagerty acknowledged is a tight window for the agency to hit, even with stable funding.