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Modernization: The Mainspring of NNSA FY 2022 Budget Request in the Form of Ballooning SRS Pit Costs

By Sophia Stroud

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s detailed fiscal year 2022 budget request was (partially) unveiled last week on Friday, May 28, in the evening before a long holiday weekend. The Biden Administration’s total NNSA FY22 budget request is just under $20 billion, requesting of $15.48 billion for NNSA “Total Weapons Activities” and following suit with Trump’s excessive nuclear weapons budget of $15.35 billion that Congress appropriated for FY 2021.

Of particular note in the budget request is that it will cost more than double what the National Nuclear Security Administration had previously estimated for the total of DOE’s Plutonium Bomb Plant construction at Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The facility would be a converted production plant for the fabrication of plutonium “pits,” the triggers for nuclear warheads. The cost for the plant has ballooned from the previous estimate of $4.6 billion to a now staggering $11.1 billion. What’s more, the schedule for the facility’s initial operation has slipped up to five years. The plans for the SRS Plutonium Bomb Plant have already run far over budget and fallen behind schedule, and “these troubling and potentially debilitating developments foreshadow problems to come to the challenging pit-production project,” according to the public interest group Savannah River Site Watch.

The construction plans for the new Savannah River Plutonium Bomb Plant involve “repurposing” the failed plutonium fuel (MOX) building at SRS, a project which has already cost taxpayers a wasted $8 billion. The NNSA’s previous cost estimate of $4.6 billion came in 2018, before the project’s critical decision-1 (CD-1) review, conducted just last winter and submitted to NNSA headquarters in Washington D.C. recently this April. This new breath-taking $11.1 billion figure comes weeks before a key decision will be made on the planning for the facility through CD-1. Further, this new cost is based on the design of the facility being only 30% complete, when 90% design completion in not expected until “CD [Critical Decision]-2/3 approval in FY23-24.” (PDF page 211). Given these factors on top of DOE’s extremely poor track record in managing complex and costly construction projects (illustrated clearly with the MOX debacle), it is fully expected that the pit plant cost will increase over time and that the schedule for the project will continue to slip. There is also some significant concern regarding the necessity of the entire project.

“DOE and DOD have so far refused to reassess the supposed need for the costly weapons system and the need for new plutonium pits on its warhead. Over 15,000 pits are in storage at DOE’s Pantex site in Texas and experts have stated that they “have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium.” (JASON “Pit Lifetime” report to NNSA, January 2007)”

Savannah River Site Watch

The question arises, what sort of cuts are being made so the behemoth price tag of the planned Savannah River Plutonium Pit Plant can be realized? The Biden budget cuts funding for dismantlements by 9% to $51 million, a mere 0.3% of NNSA’s $15.48 billion for “Total Weapons Activities.” Despite the ballooning cost of the construction plans, the Savannah River Plutonium Pit Plant is being prioritized because, “We have to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal,” according to the White House. But really, what could be more modern than change? How is sticking to the policies that stuffy white men decide on behind closed-door senate caucus meetings “modernization”? A push for nuclear rearmament is a pull backwards, towards the past, towards a new nuclear arms race and a continued legacy of the almighty defense industry spending millions to make billions on the backs of taxpayers. Congress should make real change and focus on prioritizing funding for nuclear weapons dismantlements instead of so called “modernization,” giving American taxpayers permanent savings by reducing security costs, as well as providing a compelling international example toward the global nuclear disarmament enshrined in the 1970 NonProliferation Treaty.