By: Jen DiMascio, Politico.com
June 4, 2008 02:24 PM EST
Nuns, Quakers, arms-control wonks and liberal scientists may not appear to have a chance of killing the savior of the administration’s nuclear weapons stockpile, the next-generation Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
But for the second year in a row, the anti-nuclear-weapons coalition has more than a prayer in its fight against the administration, the national laboratories and the New Mexico congressional delegation.
Ultimately, the next administration will decide the fate of the program that upgrades existing nuclear weapons without the need for further nuclear testing. This year, the coalition’s outlook is not good.
“My intention would be to provide no funding,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee.
But killing government programs of this kind is about as difficult as getting rid of nuclear waste. Even though leading appropriators oppose the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, it retains widespread support among lawmakers for strategic and parochial reasons.
The program is projected to cost up to $100 billion. And as much as the administration lays out arguments about updating the nation’s nuclear arsenal, the program would certainly provide future work for scientists at national laboratories in California and New Mexico that have already seen budget cuts.
Key support has come from Republican Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
They back the National Nuclear Security Administration’s view, seeing the Reliable Replacement Warhead program as an upgrade to current programs that extend the life of nuclear weapons. The new program would be cheaper to maintain as well as smaller and safer than the current stockpile of nuclear weapons that degrade over time. Refreshing the nuclear arsenal would also bolster the nation’s effort to deter attacks, advocates say.
In New Mexico, the program would mean plenty of high-end jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Republican Rep. Steve Pearce failed to restore funding on the House side for design plans cut from the defense authorization bill last month, citing work force concerns in a floor statement.
“I would note that $10 million, the amount that is designated for the RRW, is just enough to keep the doors open — that once we allow this team of experts to dissipate, once these people are hired away, then we will never build another team,” Pearce said.
Pearce’s staff is working directly with Los Alamos and other national laboratories to impress upon the rest of Congress that the Reliable Replacement Warhead program represents the future for maintaining the nation’s strategic nuclear deterrence.
The national labs do have ties to corporations. For example, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is managed by Bechtel National Inc., the University of California, The Babcock & Wilcox Co., the Washington division of URS Corp. and Battelle Memorial Institute. But, according to one lobbyist, the companies try to stay out of policy debates as hot as the one over the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
In the past, the program enjoyed bipartisan support. Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), whose district includes Livermore and Sandia national laboratories, initially backed the program. This year, Tauscher diverted $10 million for design work on the program to address technical questions raised by an outside review of the program.
Support among appropriators deteriorated last year, even among the program’s initial backers.
The program was first pitched in 2005 as a fairly innocuous study to Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), then-chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee. Hobson, who helped move the program forward, was chagrined to learn the administration’s plans for the program were far more extensive than he had been led to believe.
He withdrew his support and helped cut funding for the program last year with the new subcommittee chairman, Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.).
In addition to credibility concerns, the administration’s technical arguments about how rapidly a replacement is required were undercut by a third-party scientific review mandated by Congress that found the stockpile was not degrading as rapidly as initially projected.
Its technical findings fueled more congressional opposition last year. And this year, the administration scaled back its own expectations for progress on the program, whittling its main budget request.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is keen to fight any further budget cuts, said spokesman