Fissile material mysteries in the U.S. Department of Energy FY20 budget request

by Greg Mello

On March 25, DOE released the final installment of its fiscal year (FY) 2020 funding request for its nuclear weapons, naval reactor, and nonproliferation programs, including proposed outyear spending for FYs 2021-2024. (Subsequent page numbers without associated links refer to this document.)

For some programs, the details provided raise as many questions as they answer.

1. The huge and growing "Plutonium Sustainment" budget line, for which DOE is requesting $712 million for FY2020 (p. 82), about twice last year's budget. The program covers "all things plutonium" in the nuclear weapons program, including efforts to reestablish warhead core ("pit") production capability. It is expected to double in scale again by 2023, spending $5.7 billion over the coming 5 years (p. 83).

Alarmed by the scale and growth of pit production spending absent any firm project description or management structure, last year congressional appropriators required (pp. 107-108) that the expansion of pit production be placed within a well-defined new project, with normal fiscal and management controls. That hasn't happened yet.

In this budget request the "Plutonium Sustainment" program has three subprograms (p. 119), none of which are well-defined. The first is NNSA's "Plutonium Sustainment Operations" budget line, which includes among other things everything needed to "restore" the 10 pit per year (ppy) production capacity Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was recently said to already have. No dollar figure is attached.

2. A new "Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility" (SRPPF) project, no formal description of which is included, for which $410 million is requested (p. 122) for FY2020. Presumably most of these funds would be spent at or through the Savannah River Site, although an unknown portion will be spent at LANL.

3. The "Plutonium Pit Production" (P3) Project at LANL, the scope of which "is being redefined" (p. 135). Some $21 million is requested for FY2020.

Subsequent to the budget release, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty testified that in addition to the $410 million for SRPPF, NNSA is requesting "nearly $500 million" (at 1:18:57) for pit production at LANL. The latter figure is nowhere explained in the public budget. Neither is the apparent discrepancy between the total of these two efforts and the overall Plutonium Sustainment request.

4. The proposed $1.4 billion Material Staging Facility (MSF) (pp. 283, 288) at the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant, located in House Armed Services Ranking Member "Mac" Thornberry's district.

Pantex is authorized to store up to 20,000 pits (p. 7; see also footnote 3 here) as well as nuclear warheads, in its "Zone 4" magazines as well as in Zone 12, the main production area. Possible replacement of the magazines - which date from World War II and have had numerous issues related to overheating, humidity, and safety, as well as flooding and corrosion and which now face security recapitalization costs - with a consolidated storage facility has been considered for decades.

The MSF project originated in Congress - not NNSA - via Section 3142 of the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which required NNSA to choose a preferred concept within 30 days of enactment (!). By now, two years later, $29 million (p. 283) has been spent trying to define the project, none of which funds were actually requested by NNSA.

In March of this year DOE, NNSA, and their contractors met at Pantex to hammer out the facility's requirements, constraints, location, necessary support facilities, and other project details. A final conceptual design is due in August 2019.

Apart from $4 million in overhead requested for the coming year (p. 283), NNSA does not propose funding this project again until FY2024, when $371 million is projected (p. 288). Given the amount, this is apparently for detailed design and initial construction. Needless to say, much could change over the coming four years.

5. The disposition of surplus plutonium, which draws on much the same set of infrastructure assets as do NNSA's other plutonium programs. First, why does NNSA seek to spend $329 million -- $220 million in FY20 and the balance in FY21 - on the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF), which was canceled in FY18? That is a lot of money to spend laying that project to rest.

6. What is the large NN construction project proposed for LANL, presented without any explanation at all except an ever-rising funding level totaling $215 million over the FY21-24 period, with no overall cost or end in sight?

7. How will NNSA allocate its limited plutonium processing and storage space, especially in LANL's crowded PF-4, given the rising programmatic importance of pit production? Will disposition suffer?

Some of these projects are evolving even as funding decisions are being made. For some, Congress doesn't know what they are, NNSA admittedly doesn't either, no fiscal or project management controls are in place, and for most of them no environmental impact analysis has been done. A key question is whether Congress will demand full explanations of these and other programs before making multibillion-dollar, multi-decade commitments.