Reading Room

Some Key Numbers from the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Request for Nuclear Weapons

President Obama sent his Fiscal Year 2016 budget request for nuclear weapons to Congress today, making it publicly available for the first time. At Tri-Valley CAREs, we are sifting through its thousands of pages for key details. We are concentrating on budget submittals of the Department of Energy and, in particular, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The NNSA is responsible for the design, development, testing, production and dismantlement of U.S. nuclear weapons as well as certain aspects of environmental cleanup (e.g., at Livermore Lab) and various other activities. Here is some of what we have uncovered so far.

Despite President Obama's rhetoric on U.S. leadership in nuclear weapons disarmament, the NNSA received a double-digit boost in the President's budget request, up from the already too high $11.4 billion appropriated in FY 2015 to a soaring $12.6 billion for the coming fiscal year, an increase of more than $1 billion. Budget austerity apparently applies more to programs of social uplift than those of mass destruction.

Within the NNSA, two programs were shifted from the Nuclear Weapons Activities budget into the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation budget, masking the size of the actual FY 2016 increase for Weapons Activities. The two accounts that were moved are the Nuclear Counterterrorism and Incident Response program and the Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation program.

The Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation budget also houses the problem-plagued program to make plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for civilian nuclear power plants, which is a huge nuclear proliferation risk and not a solution. The FY 2016 budget request contains $340 million to continue construction of a MOX plant at the Savannah River Site.

One of the big nuclear winners in the budget request is a Livermore Lab-led program to develop a new Long-Range Stand Off (LRSO) warhead to sit atop a new radar-evading air-launched cruise missile that the Defense Department will design. The LRSO would allow a plane to stand off a thousand miles or so from its target and launch a sneak nuclear attack.

Congress funded the LRSO warhead at $9 million for FY 2015. The FY 2016 request is for $195 million, with increases to $312 million in 2017, $407 million in 2018, and so on, spiraling upward.

The Obama budget seeks to lavish funds on "modernizing" the nuclear weapons complex too. For example, the Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12 in TN has an FY 2016 request for $430 million, up $95 million from its current (too generous) appropriation of $335 million. Here, too, the coming years show even steeper increases, to half a billion dollars in 2017, $515 million the following year, and so on.

The FY 2016 budget request for Inertial Confinement Fusion is just over $502 million, down slightly from its 2015 enacted level. However, Livermore Lab's direct largesse for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) holds firm at $322.5 million, with the FY 2016 request matching exactly its 2015 funding level.

We at Tri-Valley CAREs are still combing through all the fine print trying to find a dollar amount for plutonium experiments at the NIF in FY 2016. So far, plutonium experiments are noted for the Z-facility at Sandia and for NIF, and for other facilities (e.g., the JASPER gas gun and U1a facility at the test site in Nevada), but there are no separate dollar amounts given.

Moreover, there is nothing that says why NIF is so necessary for plutonium shots. Indeed, the budget documents say that an advanced high-pressure capability will be developed on Z for plutonium experiments in the coming year, and that a new, advanced platform for these materials will be developed on Z for high-pressure measurements starting in 2017.

This does not rule out NIF capabilities, but the budget request so far does not make NIF seem very special in this regard, particularly because experiments on NIF are being conducted only with plutonium-242 at present because Livermore Lab cannot make an inner containment vessel work on NIF, while similar experiments have been conducted since 2011 with weapons grade plutonium-239 at Z-facility because Sandia did successfully develop an inner containment vessel for it. Conducting plutonium shots on multiple fusion machines around the country appears profligate at best. Moreover, it belies a larger question of whether these experiments should be conducted at all.

The news about cleanup of past contamination in the weapons complex is slightly more upbeat, but not much. The DOE Defense Environmental Cleanup goes up from a top line of $4.99 billion to $5.06 billion, an increase of 1%. However, that 1% increase is insufficient for all sites to meet the legally mandated cleanup milestones. And, the specific budget category that contains the funding for Livermore Lab cleanup is actually down slightly from last year.

Please watch this space in the coming days and weeks, as we will post more about the FY 2016 budget request for nuclear weapons as the details come into focus. And, feel free to peruse the documents on your own.

Click here for the DOE and NNSA FY 2016 budget request.