Thursday, June 21, 2007

House Energy and Water update, amendment on moving pit disassembly plant

The House approved most parts of the 2008 appropriations for energy and water development (H.R. 2641), which Jeff and I have talked about here and here.

This is mostly good news for the non-proliferation agenda. While final passage of the House version of the bill is not expected until later in the summer due to some unsettled discussions unrelated to non-proliferation, Democrats and Republicans have come together to oppose the Bush administration’s lack of a coherent strategy (sound familiar?) for the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Here are some funding recaps:

* Funding to build a new generation of nuclear weapons (the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program, or RRW) has been eliminated. The administration initially asked for $88.8 million.

* Overall nuclear weapons budget was reduced by $632 million, to $5.9 billion.

* Non-proliferation spending programs were increased by $491 million, or 75 percent to a total of $1.7 million.

Although the bill is yet not finalized, these numbers are not expected to change in the House version until the joint-conference where a final version of the bill will be hashed out between the Senate and the House. As I have stated previously, my guess is that the House version will stay low (now true), the Senate version will remain high (currently appropriated at $195 million across multiple accounts), and a middle ground will be found in the joint-conference.

There was one important amendment to the bill relating to nuclear weapons that passed: Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) proposed an amendment (H.Amdt. 329) that blocks moving a pit disassembly plant from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to the Pantex weapons facility in Texas. The amendment was approved by voice vote.

Members of Congress had initially decided to keep both the Pit Disassembly plant and storage facilities at one site (the Pantex facility) for “obvious security reasons”:

Co-locating the Pit Disassembly facility with the pit storage facilities at the Pantex Plant provides an obvious security improvement and program efficiency element to the PDCF proposal. The Committee finds the Department initial decision to site the Pit Disassembly facility at the Savannah River Site (SRS) not appropriate in light of the post 9/11 security environment. The Committee finds the security vulnerabilities inherent in transporting intact nuclear weapon pits from the storage location at the Pantex Plant to a disassembly operation 1,200 miles across the country too significant and costly to justify constructing the facility at SRS. (House Energy and Water Appropriations Bill Report, House Report 110-185, June 11, 1007)

A plutonium pit is a metal sphere containing plutonium-239 that acts as a “trigger” for a nuclear weapon when compressed by surrounding explosives – as the plutonium is compressed it starts a fission reaction (see images below). Pit disassembly is the last step in weapons dismantlement, and Pantex is the only facility in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) complex currently authorized to conduct pit assembly and disassembly.

Plutonium Pit Cross Section

A plutonium pit is located near the tip of modern warheads

Overall, $173 million is appropriated for pit disassembly, including $91 million for the new Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility Project at the Savannah River Site. Rep. John Spratt (D-SC), a friend of Tauscher, likely favors relocating the pit production facility to his constituent state of South Carolina.

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