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“Burning Platform”: NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino on FY 2013 Budget Request

Richard M. Jones
Number 39 - March 15, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Thomas D’Agostino had been testifying for only a few minutes when he spoke of the austere budget environment as creating what he called a “burning platform” to “dramatically change the way we do business.” 

“The fiscal environment provides very difficult problems from our original plan” he told the members of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee on February 29 at a hearing to review NNSA’s FY 2013 request.  Under this request, NNSA funding would increase by 4.9 percent or $535.9 million to $11,535.9 million in FY 2013.  The budget for Weapons Activities would increase 5.0 percent.

Despite these increases, D’Agostino outlined for the subcommittee a series of proposed changes in FY 2013.  Two of the most significant are a slowing of the planned schedule for weapons life extension.  NNSA also proposes to defer construction of a Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMMR) nuclear facility at Los Alamos resulting in an estimated cost avoidance of $1.8 billion from 2013 to 2017.  Under this new CMRR schedule, NNSA will not have a new plutonium capability until 2028. 

Subcommittee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) wanted, and received assurance, from D’Agostino that NNSA’s FY 2013 budget request will support the maintenance of the stockpile.  The chairman also sought, and again received, a statement for the record from D’Agostino that the FY 2012 appropriation will enable NNSA to maintain the stockpile.  NNSA received a 4.5 percent increase for this year.

Also discussed was a recent report by a National Research Council subcommittee on the management of NNSA’s laboratories.  The report was the subject of a hearing by a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee at which a prominent witness described “a system that is truly broken,” with “micromanagement [that] is killing us.”   D’Agostino described on-going efforts to address management and morale problems that were identified by laboratory directors.  Twenty-eight burdensome orders and directives were identified, and of these, 25 were taken care of.  Two of the remaining three were “put on hold” at the request of the directors; the remaining item is under consideration. 

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) asked about the ability of NNSA to retain and recruit a workforce with the critical skills required at the laboratories.  D’Agostino said NNSA was competing with universities and companies for the highest caliber employee, adding that the vital nature of the mission was something that set the agency apart.  He also described the importance of the laboratories’ employees being technically challenged “with very difficult problems that the nation cares about” such as the Gulf oil spill or the Fukushima disaster.   Also testifying was NNSA Deputy Administrator Don Cook who predicted that as the economy improved the agency would have difficulty attracting new employees, adding that he expected “a fairly strong loss of people” now working at the laboratories. 

There was also discussion about the nation’s stockpile which is the smallest it has been since the Eisenhower Administration.  The average life of weapons in the stockpile is now beyond 25 years.  Frelinghuysen asked whether it was true that “some pretty drastic reductions [are] being considered” in the stockpile beyond those levels in the last Nuclear Posture Review and the START II Treaty levels.  Frelinghuysen asked a series of questions about such a reduction, with D’Agostino acknowledging that congressional input would be sought if that were to occur.  Frelinghuysen expressed his concerns about scientists who “are not benign” in North Korean, China, and Iran that “are working on their own version of nuclear weapons and we need to be prepared to meet those kinds of challenges.”

The last exchange of questions was initiated by subcommittee Ranking Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN), who stated, “Dr. Cook, it appears that the prospects of achieving ignition at NIF [National Ignition Facility] in 2012 are not great.  If we don’t achieve ignition in 2012, what will happen as far as restructuring program plans to advance stockpile stewardship goals?

Cook would not predict an ignition date, only saying “it’s a very demanding scientific challenge.”  He told the subcommittee that the facility could be used for other stewardship science experiments in 2013 that are not limited to “those areas of ignition.”  When asked by Visclosky if ignition would someday be achieved, Cook replied “I believe that good time and effort will get us to ignition on NIF in the course of time.”  Both Visclosky and Frelinghuysen expressed their belief that, in Visclosky’s words, “you needed ignition at the facility as a component to ensure the success of stockpile stewardship.”  Cook replied “it is a key component, and not the only thing.”  D’Agostino concurred with Cook that ongoing experimental work at NIF was “absolutely essential to stockpile stewardship” “even without achieving that ignition point.”    

Members did not press the witnesses for further clarification.  After a brief exchange about contract management, the hearing was adjourned.

Note:  Selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics