SRS Sign, SWPF Update

An entrance to the Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile nuclear reservation south of Aiken and near New Ellenton.

President Donald Trump's fiscal year 2021 budget request, rolled out Monday afternoon, affords billions of dollars less to the U.S. Department of Energy, overall, while dramatically boosting potential spending at the National Nuclear Security Administration, the DOE agency in charge of the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The multitrillion-dollar blueprint – not actual appropriations – includes $35.4 billion for the Energy Department, which stewards the Savannah River Site, the 310-square-mile nuclear reservation south of Aiken. That's a roughly 8% cut compared to the 2020 enacted level.

A little more than $6 billion has been requested for the Energy Department's remediation office, Environmental Management. The funding touches 16 sites, including SRS, spread across 11 states.

The White House also has outlined $19.8 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a 19% increase for the semiautonomous weapons-and-nonproliferation organization. A vast majority – $15.6 billion – of that sum is for nuclear weapons programs, according to fact sheets provided by the federal budget office. That's notable, U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said Monday in a briefing with reporters.

"This year's budget underscores the importance of nuclear security by increasing funding to modernize and maintain our nuclear stockpile," Brouillette said in a separate statement. The need for up-to-date nuclear weapons and related infrastructure is emphasized throughout the lengthy document.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican whose district includes the Savannah River Site, "is supportive of the NNSA funding" and is looking forward to digging into the finer details, a person familiar with the matter told the Aiken Standard.

The Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan organization, early last year reported that completely satisfying the U.S. energy and defense departments' fiscal year 2019 nuclear-related requests would cost $494 billion over the next decade. The prediction represents a marked increase compared to an estimate made two years prior.

In all, Trump's latest request includes $740.5 billion for national defense ventures.

The spike in potential funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration has drawn the ire of some nuclear watchers and comes at a time when the agency, led by Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, is pushing for widespread modernization, something Brouillette on Monday said requires serious funding.

At the Savannah River Site, such endeavors include new tritium facilities and, possibly, plutonium pit production: pumping out 50 nuclear weapon cores every year by 2030.

A Savannah River Site Watch email blast on Monday described the NNSA boost as "massive and unjustified," an increase that "will fuel a new nuclear arms race, needlessly enrich private contractors and increase the debt." Tom Clements, the Savannah River Site Watch director, predicted the request would not survive congressional scrutiny.

Stephen Young, a Washington representative for the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested the National Nuclear Security Administration has too full of a plate – and funding won't fix it.

"Someone needs to explain to the Pentagon that this push to have the NNSA upgrade the entire nuclear arsenal, building all new warheads while making new plutonium pits and new uranium components," Young said, "is a recipe for disaster, a stockpile plan that will fail."

Similarly, Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at Arms Control Association, described the Trump administration's nuclear weapons spending plan as "unnecessary and unsustainable."

"The costs and opportunity costs of the plans are real and growing – and the biggest nuclear modernization bills are just beginning to hit," Reif told the Aiken Standard.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin