When the president released his Fiscal Year 2013 federal budget proposal earlier this year, opponents of government waste took heart: the budget zeroed out funding for a proposed nuclear weapons facility that had been plagued by massive cost overruns and schedule delays for about a decade. Now it seems that eight senators are trying to undermine the president’s proposal and put funding back into the New Mexico facility, even though the agency and congressional overseers who know the project best say it’s unnecessary.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the senators argued that the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility is necessary to fulfill “critical national defense mission requirements.” They urged Panetta to put $300 million back into the facility for fiscal year 2013 and to begin planning for the following years even though the president’s proposal called for a delay of at least five years.
But why should they favor the president’s proposal? Well, for one, it’s backed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Department of Energy agency that oversees all nuclear weapons projects. And the agency’s stamp of approval in this case is no small matter—it fought for years to build the nuclear facility, but concluded this year that “existing infrastructure” is a workable substitute for the brand-new, nearly $6 billion facility.
The senators’ letter exemplifies the current power struggle over this project in the House and Senate. On one side are the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittees, which draw up the nuclear weapons budget each year and which have followed the evolution of this project for almost a decade. By not funding the facility in their latest appropriations bill, they essentially agreed with the president and NNSA that the nation neither needs nor can afford a new multi-billion dollar nuclear weapons facility.
On the other side are the Armed Services Committees, which typically oversee non-nuclear defense projects and which lack the expertise to make authoritative decisions about nuclear projects. They’ve already tried to put over $100 million back into the nuclear facility in the latest defense authorization bill. Five of the eight senators who signed the letter are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, though the signature of Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is notably absent.
The senators’ letter relies largely on New START, an arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, as justification for building the nuclear facility. This is frankly nonsensical. The nuclear facility would produce a nuclear weapons component called plutonium pits, which would allow the nation to increase its supply of nuclear weapons. The treaty calls for just the opposite: a reduction of the nation’s strategic nuclear weapons. And, according to the State Department, as of this April, the United States’ arsenal remains above the treaty’s limits, while Russia has already made the required reductions.
Given the nation’s robust nuclear capability, the nuclear facility is simply not needed to “maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal,” as the senators argue. As POGO has reported, former NNSA officials, former nuclear weapons lab managers, and other credible experts have said that the nuclear facility is not needed for the nation’s national defense and is a waste of taxpayer money—up to $6 billion, according to the administration’s latest estimates. Even Panetta’s own Department of Defense, as a member of the Nuclear Weapons Council, put its support behind the president’s proposal to delay the facility.
These eight senators need to give up this fight and leave decisions about the nuclear facility to those who know it best. In this constrained fiscal environment, pouring millions—and eventually billions—of dollars back into this unnecessary project is simply foolish.
Mia Steinle is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight.
Image from Flickr user Los Alamos National Laboratory