Alexander at NNSA budget hearing: ‘We are going to have to make some hard decisions this year’

alexandersummitU.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, convened a subcommittee hearing to get more input from top National Nuclear Security Administration officials on the FY 2016 budget request.

Here’s the text of the Republican senator’s prepared remarks:

We’re here today to review the president’s fiscal year 2016 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy that is responsible for managing our nuclear weapons stockpile, reducing global dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, and providing the Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion. 

This is the subcommittee’s third hearing this year on the president’s budget request, and I look forward to hearing our witnesses’ testimony. 

The National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, has an important national security mission, but faces many challenges. That’s why we need to do what we were sent here to do – to govern.

Governing is about setting priorities, and we are going to have to make some hard decisions this year to make sure the highest priorities are funded.    

The president’s fiscal year 2016 budget request for defense spending is about $38 billion higher than what is allowed under the spending caps in the Budget Control Act.

In fact, if spending this year is consistent with the Budget Control Act, fully funding NNSA’s budget request alone would require almost the entire increase in defense spending for all defense programs – including the Department of Defense.

We will work with Senator Cochran and Senator Mikulski to increase the subcommittee’s defense spending allocation, but we’re going to need your help to understand the NNSA’s most urgent priorities, and that is why we are holding this hearing. 

Today, I’d like to focus my questions on three main areas, all with an eye toward setting priorities:

1.         Keeping large construction projects on time and on budget;
2.         Effectively maintaining our nuclear weapons stockpile; and
3.         Supporting our nuclear Navy.

Keeping Large Construction Projects on Time and on Budget

The NNSA is responsible for three of the largest construction projects in the federal government:  the Uranium Processing Facility in Tennessee; the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina; and the Plutonium Facility in New Mexico.

Combined, these projects could cost as much as $20 billion dollars to build, and over the past four years, Senator Feinstein and I have worked hard with the NNSA to keep costs from skyrocketing and to make sure hard-earned taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. We need to make sure these projects are on time and on budget.

Senator Feinstein and I have focused much of our oversight on the Uranium Processing Facility in Tennessee, because costs had increased every time we would get a status update. 

Three years ago, we began holding regular meetings with the NNSA administrator and his team. 

We said we wanted 90 percent design completed before we began construction and urged the NNSA to take aggressive steps to get costs under control.   

The NNSA administrator asked Thom Mason, the laboratory director for Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, to head a Red Team to review the project. The result of that review may be a model for how to keep these kinds of projects on time and on budget.

The Red Team’s report included 17 recommendations, nearly all of which the NNSA has now adopted, to keep the Uranium Facility within a $6.5 billion budget with completion by 2025. 

Based on these recommendations, the Uranium Facility will now consist of at least two buildings − one with high security and one with less security − with construction of these buildings to begin once their design is at 90 percent. 

As I understand it, NNSA recently completed a portion of the site preparation for this project under budget by $10 million.  That’s a good start, but there’s a lot more work to be done.

I’m going to ask you more today about the Uranium Facility, particularly about your schedule for completing the design and when you anticipate construction can begin.

I also want to ask you about how you are applying the lessons we learned from the Uranium Facility to the other big construction projects, and look forward to any updates you can provide.

General Klotz, I know you plan to go to Tennessee tomorrow to see the progress on this project.  I appreciate your hands-on approach to making sure this important project is delivered on time and on budget. 
Effectively Maintaining our Nuclear Weapons

Another large portion of the budget request is the work NNSA is doing to maintain our nuclear weapons stockpile, and I want to make sure we are spending taxpayer dollars effectively.

The budget request includes $1.3 billion to continue the four ongoing life extension programs, which fix or replace components in weapons systems to make sure they’re safe and reliable. 

These life extension programs are needed but they are very expensive, and I will ask you today whether you will be able to meet your production deadlines on time and on budget.

Supporting our Nuclear Navy

Naval Reactors is responsible for all aspects of the nuclear reactors that power our submarines and aircraft carriers. Naval Reactors is currently designing a new reactor core that will not need to be refueled during the life of the ship.

This work will save taxpayers billions of dollars because we won’t have to build two extra submarines to make up for those that are not in service while they are being refueled. 

The small nuclear reactors that Naval Reactors designs have had an impeccable safety record for more than 60 years; there has never been a reactor accident.

I also want to hear more about your plans for storing the Navy’s used nuclear fuel.

We talked a lot in our hearing last week with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about Yucca Mountain and storing used nuclear fuel from commercial reactors, and I’d like to hear from you how this issue impacts your operations.

With that, I would recognize Senator Feinstein to make her opening statement.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.