A Feel Good Victory: Nuclear Pork is No Longer on the Menu

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This article is co-authored by Alexandra Bell, Research Associate, Ploughshares Fund.

A coalition of citizens groups and progressive House Members just saved the American taxpayers a whole lot of money. They eliminated from the stimulus bill $1 billion dollars for nuclear weapons work the Senate had stuffed in.

After discovering the bonus the Senate would give the National Nuclear Security Administration (a 10 percent increase in their annual budget), your friendly neighborhood arms control groups sprang into action. Over twenty organizations including the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, the evangelical group Faithful Security, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Project on Government Oversight and Women’s Action for New Directions worked the Hill with citizen groups across the country to strip the funding from the final bill. [Full disclosure: many of the groups received grants from our foundation, Ploughshares Fund.]

The bonus slid by the Senate, but a group of influential House Members were not going to let this one pass. Congressmen Ed Markey (D-MA), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and James McGovern (D-Mass.) wrote to House Appropriations chair David Obey (D-Wis) outraged at the “back-room deal in the Senate.”

“We are shocked that while the Senate felt it was necessary to cut billions of dollars for school construction they found an extra billion for nuclear weapons,…This is the kind of unnecessary…appropriation which ought to be stripped from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, especially when so many worthy priorities from the House bill were removed from the Senate bill.”

It worked. The billion-dollar nuclear bonus is gone. And there were no million-dollar lobbyists behind this. The people who appealed to Congress were just concerned citizens united in an organized effort. Turns out, it is possible to move mountains….or at least funding items.

Let’s be clear: some of the projects may be worth doing, but this had no business in a stimulus bill. The agency should go through the normal appropriations process.

Need more details? Here is the successful letter signed by 22 groups arranged by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability:

Dear Senator,

We write to express concern over the $1 billion proposed for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in S.336, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With Congress seeking to make substantial cuts in the total price tag of the bill, we strongly urge you to eliminate the $1 billion for NNSA. This money is not a cost effective way of accomplishing S.336’s primary stated goals of creating jobs, restoring economic growth and strengthening America’s middle class. Moreover, it would be premature to make major investments in NNSA’s nuclear weapons research and production infrastructure, which the agency proposes to revitalize through “Complex Transformation.” NNSA has a long history of cost overruns and poor management, and is one of the least likely agencies to give taxpayers a sound return on their investment when economic stimulus is so vitally needed. Finally, it is unlikely that this money will go towards preventing terrorism.

Congress has repeatedly noted that the United States lacks clear nuclear weapons policies. Adding $1 billion to NNSA’s $9 billion budget is an 11% increase, a poor investment when there is such a policy vacuum. The 2008 Defense Authorization Act requires that the Obama Administration complete a nuclear posture and policy review. Until the Obama Administration addresses such issues as posture, force structure, size and scope of the nuclear complex, it would be premature to make any decisions about what infrastructure projects are needed. Conversely, making major investments in the complex could potentially prejudice the final outcome of any posture review that the Obama Administration conducts.

Since its inception in 1999, the NNSA has continually experienced significant cost overruns and oversight problems. According to several GAO reports, NNSA had not been fully effective in managing its safeguards and security program. The reports found that there was weakness in security culture, organization, staffing and training. Additionally, two of NNSA’s major projects, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) and the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility, “experienced major delays and cost overruns because of problems with project management and are still not complete.” The NIF alone, originally expected to cost approximately $2.1 billion upon its completion in 2002, is still not operational and is expected to cost more than $3 billion. While this money is likely not going to these projects, NNSA should not be rewarded for their poor track record with an additional $1 billion.

Senators should also realize that these funds are unlikely to go towards preventing nuclear terrorism, as DOE spends at least 67 percent of its budget on weapons. The Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) did not mention using any potential stimulus money for securing the incredibly vulnerable highly enriched uranium, which only a few years ago was a priority security issue that could not be addressed due to a lack of funding. Also, these funds will not likely go towards expediting the removal of bomb-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Recent security tests failure demonstrate that the Lab’s nuclear materials pose a significant risk to its surrounding residential community.

With Congress seeking to make substantial cuts in the total price tag of the bill, we strongly urge you to eliminate the $1 billion for NNSA. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Chalk up one for the good guys.

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