Last week, U.S. House Republican lawmakers authorized hundreds of millions of dollars for costly new nuclear weapons-related facilities and missile defense projects the Pentagon says it does not want or need. Worse, the House Armed Services Committee majority is seeking to hold up implementation of the New START Treaty, which entered into force just last year and verifiably reduces U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, unless the Congress approves higher spending levels for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) weapons activities.
By a narrow 34-28 margin, Republicans on the House Armed Services committee pushed through a 48-page amendment offered by Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, to the National Defense Authorization Act that would block funding for New START implementation unless higher spending targets for nuclear weapons production facilities set in 2010 are met in future years.
This type of partisan “hostage taking” threatens to undermine U.S. national security, and it ignores the fact that there is bi-partisan agreement among congressional appropriators that additional nuclear weapon budget increases are unaffordable and unnecessary.
If Rep. Turner’s provision to tie up New START were to become law, Russia would likely halt its nuclear reductions as well, risking the treaty’s collapse. This would allow Moscow to rebuild its nuclear forces above the treaty ceiling of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and increase the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the U.S.
Moreover, the inspection system established under the treaty could collapse, depriving the U.S. of crucial data exchanges and on-site inspections of Russian forces, undermining transparency and strategic stability.
Rep. Turner and his allies complain that the administration’s $7.6 billion request for NNSA weapons activities for fiscal 2013 is 4 percent lower than projected in 2010, during the New START debate in the Senate.
But they ignore the reality that the FY2013 request is actually 5 percent higher than the 2012 enacted budget. Rather than a breach of faith, this year’s NNSA request represents a healthy increase in the face of fiscal pressures imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
In fact, last year, the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee declined to fully fund the administration’s request for nuclear weapon spending increases, and this year the committee did not add funds above the administration’s request.
The main issue of contention is a plutonium laboratory, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Facility, to be built at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, which the administration deferred for at least five years.
However, far from being upset that the administration was not seeking CMRR funds this year, the House Appropriations Committee complained that the facility should have been shelved sooner.
“By not fully considering all available options, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent for work which will not be needed until a much later date,” the Republican-led appropriations committee wrote about CMRR on April 24.
Even so, Rep. Turner and company warn that without CMRR, the U.S. does not have the capability to make 50 to 80 newly produced plutonium cores or “pits” annually for refurbished warheads.
Their bill would authorize $100 million more for the facility next year, call on DoD to cover future costs and stipulate that it is built no later than 2024.
The reality, however, is that there is no identified need to produce that many plutonium pits. NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino testified to Congress on April 17 that the U.S. does not need CMRR to maintain an effective stockpile.
“That’s great news for the country, because we’re not forced into making rash decisions on significant investments in a very short period of time. So we have time to evaluate this area,” D’Agostino said.
With cost estimates for CMRR skyrocketing from $600 million to $6 billion, the delay is a reasonable response to tight budgets given that other NNSA facilities have “inherent capacity” to support ongoing and future plutonium activities, according to NNSA. CMRR deferral will not compromise NNSA’s ability to maintain the nuclear stockpile.
It is time to stop playing political games with U.S. nuclear weapon policy. Continued, verified reductions of excessive U.S. and Russian arsenals will enhance U.S. security by reducing the nuclear threat.
As the Pentagon said in January, “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory, as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.”
A smaller nuclear force would also save money.
The major threats the U.S. faces today, such as proliferation, terrorism or cyber attacks, cannot be addressed by nuclear arms. Rather than demanding American taxpayers cough up yet more money for a new nuclear facility that we don’t need, Congress needs to focus on more cost-effective solutions that address the nation’s future defense needs.
Daryl G. Kimball, left, executive director, and Tom Z. Collina, research director, of the independent u.s. Arms Control Association.