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FY24 Budget Outlook: National Nuclear Security Administration

AUG 23, 2023
The National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget is poised to increase about 8% overall for fiscal year 2024, but appropriators are registering growing displeasure over cost overruns across NNSA’s construction portfolio. The House and Senate also diverge over how much to allocate to R&D and nonproliferation programs.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of Science Policy News American Institute of Physics

Despite the current fiscal headwinds in Congress, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget is poised to increase significantly in fiscal year 2024. House and Senate appropriators have both proposed boosting funding for NNSA by about 8% to nearly $24 billion, slightly exceeding the Biden administration’s request. Most of the added funds would go toward modernizing infrastructure for nuclear warhead production and stewardship.

There are considerable differences between the House and Senate proposals for R&D and nonproliferation programs, with Senate appropriators seeking significantly more money for each. For NNSA’s Stockpile Research, Technology, and Engineering portfolio, the divergence generally stems from the Senate seeking more for work in inertial confinement fusion, advanced manufacturing, and advanced computing.

The administration’s request is detailed in NNSA’s budget justification document, and Congress’ proposals are detailed in reports by House and Senate appropriators. Summary figures from the reports and the request are collected in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.

FY24-NNSA-SRTE-Approps.svg

Chart of budget proposals for NNSA’s Stockpile Research, Technology, and Engineering programs

FY24 NNSA DNN Approps

Chart of budget proposals for NNSA’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation programs

Plutonium pit production

NNSA is rebuilding its ability to mass produce the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons, known as pits, in part to replace aging pits in the current warhead stockpile. Although Congress has directed NNSA to produce 80 pits per year by 2030, the agency has reported it will miss that deadline by several years even if the effort is fully funded.

The House and Senate both propose to exceed the administration’s topline request of $2.8 billion for plutonium modernization projects, instead providing $3.0 billion and $2.9 billion, respectively. House appropriators also state NNSA should strive to reach the 80 pits per year target “as close to 2030 as possible.”

Meanwhile, Senate appropriators state they believe NNSA “is not fully accounting for risk to schedule and cost for its two-site pit production strategy” and propose NNSA produce a “contingency plan” that addresses the consequences of missing the 2030 deadline. They also seek to commission the JASON science advisory panel to review the agency’s plans for determining how fast plutonium pits deteriorate, a key input to deciding how quickly pits in the stockpile must be replaced.

Specifically, JASON would assess whether NNSA’s approach to researching pit aging meets the guidelines laid out in a 2019 report by JASON on the subject. JASON would also determine “if it is possible to update the expected lifetime of plutonium pits,” using initial data collected by the national labs.

More broadly, the Senate appropriators point to the ballooning cost of pit production as emblematic of project management deficiencies at NNSA, arguing, “Too often, NNSA has over-promised, over-spent, and under-delivered on its important commitments, such as pit production.”

NNSA initially estimated the Savannah River Site pit production project would cost up to $3 billion and be completed in 2027, but it later revised the upper-bound to $11.1 billion and the completion date to 2035. In its latest budget request, NNSA states the cost may increase a further 20% to 40% and the schedule could extend by another one to three years, citing factors that have affected many other NNSA construction projects, such as skilled labor shortages and supply chain issues.

The Senate appropriators also take issue with NNSA’s invocation of “requirements” to justify budget increases. They point out that NNSA lab directors have for over two decades certified annually that the nuclear stockpile remains reliable, despite NNSA not meeting all its declared requirements during this period. “As such, the blanket requirements phrase, devoid of further explanation, has little meaning to the [Appropriations] Committee, especially as the agency’s projects’ and programs’ costs and schedules continue to experience growth and delays,” they argue.

They propose that NNSA produce a rank-ordered list of the most important infrastructure projects needed over the next two decades, and that it be prohibited from spending 20% of its budget until it provides the list to Congress.

Stockpile Research, Technology, Engineering

Tunnel at the U1a Complex.jpg

A tunnel at the U1a Complex, an underground laboratory that will host a major new plutonium imaging machine called Scorpius.

Plutonium imaging. The House and Senate proposals match the administration’s requested increases for accounts supporting a major project to develop capabilities for imaging subcritical implosions of plutonium, which will inform studies of plutonium aging and other warhead stewardship studies. The project comprises an X-ray imaging system called Scorpius, a neutron-based imaging system call the Z-pinch Experimental Underground System (ZEUS) Test Bed, and upgrades to the U1a underground complex that will host the systems.

Scorpius is the largest component of the project, consisting of a 125-meter long accelerator with an estimated total cost of up to $1.8 billion and a target completion date of 2030. NNSA initially estimated Scorpius would cost under $1 billion and be completed by the end of 2025, but the pricetag has grown due to supply chain disruptions and pandemic-driven delays as well as the agency’s decision to upgrade the facility design.

Inertial confinement fusion. While the administration requested to trim the ICF program by 5%, the House proposes flat funding of $630 million and the Senate proposes a 9% increase. The Senate also proposes that at least $410 million of the total go to the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, a $30 million increase over the minimum Congress set for the current fiscal year. The Senate also proposes that NNSA increase funding for the OMEGA Laser Facility at the University of Rochester to at least $99.4 million, $13 million over the current minimum, and increase funding for Z Pulsed Power Facility at Sandia National Labs to at least $85 million, a $2.4 million increase over the current minimum. The House does not propose allocations for individual facilities.

The administration attributed its proposed cut to a need to shift resources to “higher priority NNSA programmatic efforts.” However, the request was in the late stages of formation when the National Ignition Facility achieved fusion ignition in December 2022, a feat it has since repeated with higher yield.

Radiation effects facility. The House and Senate proposals accept the administration’s request to decrease funding for an account supporting early planning work on a $2 billion facility called Combined Radiation Environments for Survivability Testing (CREST), which will help to study how nuclear weapons will function under stresses such as electromagnetic pulses and neutron radiation. In its budget request, NNSA stated the decrease “reflects a decision to extend the planning period for CREST, given the complexities of the project, while ensuring sufficient enterprise capacity to complete ongoing construction projects.”

University programs. The administration seeks to move the Academic Programs account, which funds university-based research and workforce development initiatives, out of the Stockpile Research, Technology, and Engineering portfolio and into a new budget line called Academic Programs and Community Support. It also seeks to raise the budget for these activities from $112 million to $152 million, with $30 million of the increase allocated to a new Community Capacity Building Program that would “provide benefits to underserved communities affected by the activities at NNSA sites.” Another $7 million of the increase would go to creating a program called Pipeline Development that would assess STEM workforce needs across NNSA and aim to improve recruitment. The House proposal accepts the move of the account but does not offer any increase, while the Senate proposal does not accept the move but does meet the request.

Nuclear nonproliferation

Biosecurity. Congress provided NNSA with $20 million for the current fiscal year to launch a program that expands the agency’s role in biosecurity research. However, the House is now seeking to terminate the program, stating it “does not support expansion of the NNSA’s mission to activities better suited to other federal agencies.” The Senate proposes to raise the program’s budget to $25 million, matching the administration’s request.

Low-enriched uranium fuel. The House proposal accepts NNSA’s request to terminate funding for a program that is exploring the prospect of using low-enriched uranium fuel in nuclear-powered naval vessels instead of highly enriched uranium. However, the Senate proposes to maintain funding for the program at $20 million. Successive administrations have tried to end the program, arguing that switching to low-enriched uranium would be impractical and costly.

Medical radioisotopes. The Senate proposes spending an extra $50 million on efforts to establish domestic sources of the medical radioisotope molybdenum-99 that do not rely on highly enriched uranium. The Senate explains it “recognizes the challenges inherent in commercializing molybdenum-99 production technologies and encourages a whole-of-government collaboration regarding the financial sustainability of domestic production of this medical isotope.” The funds would supplement NNSA’s existing cooperative agreements. The agency ceased requesting dedicated funding for these cooperative agreements last fiscal year, stating that the funds provided to date would be sufficient to bring domestic production capabilities online by the end of 2023.

Nonproliferation workforce. The House and Senate both propose level funding of $125 million for the Nonproliferation Stewardship Program, exceeding the request by about $17.5 million. The House states that the funding provided above the request is for “a uranium test bed to evaluate, explore, and test emerging technologies and to maintain core competencies through enhanced, hands-on training.” The stewardship program was created in 2020 to help develop the foundational technical capabilities and workforce needed to address emerging proliferation threats.

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