By MIA STEINLE
Earlier this month, the House saw a desperate--and successful--attempt from Representative Mike Turner (R-OH) to transfer nuclear weapons construction projects from Department of Energy (DOE) authority to the Department of Defense (DoD) in the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). As I wrote then, Turner's unusual amendment was an obvious attempt to undermine congressional appropriators and the White House, both of whom had already said no to funding a certain costly, proposed nuclear facility in FY 2013. While his amendment made it into the final version of the House NDAA, it looks like some powerful Senators are displeased.
Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), respectively the Chairman and the Ranking Member of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, wrote to leaders in the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, urging them to keep nuclear construction projects under DOE authority. Of particular interest were the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF)—multi-billion dollar projects that have been plagued by budget overruns and schedule delays. Turner made a point of specifically including these two projects in his amendment.
But, as Feinstein and Alexander wrote, the Army Corps of Engineers—which would oversee construction of these projects should they be transferred to DoD authority—doesn’t have the right experience to build these “one-of-a-kind facilities.” What’s more, the Senators expressed concern that these multi-billion dollar nuclear facilities would “compete” with military facilities projects for funding, citing training facilities for troops and modernized barracks.
It’s true that the Department of Energy and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) need to improve their oversight of nuclear projects. Feinstein and Alexander acknowledge this reality. But they also propose clear-cut ways to institute “more aggressive oversight” of nuclear construction projects, which is a far better solution than passing off these projects to a department without the right knowledge and experience.
Because the SASC markup of the NDAA happens behind closed doors and they have yet to release the bill they passed, it remains unclear what that chamber has decided about the fate of these projects. A Senate Armed Services Committee press release indicates that the Senate will require the NNSA to use $150 million in FY 2013 on CMRR-NF—even though congressional appropriators and the White House zeroed out funding for that project. We hear from inside sources that the NNSA may have to take these funds elsewhere. It may find the money from previous years’ unused balances. Or this may open up the possibility of NNSA taking funds away from other nuclear projects, which would surely invite fierce opposition from the directors of NNSA’s other nuclear weapons laboratories who don’t want to see their projects lose money.
This funding battle rages on, and we can only hope that the Senate recognizes that shuffling around oversight and money isn’t the solution to these nuclear boondoggles. It’s time to stop throwing away taxpayer dollars at facilities we don’t need.
Mia Steinle is a POGO investigator.