On Thursday evening, the House passed an appropriations bill that would increase funding for nuclear weapons programs while cutting funds for nuclear security and nonproliferation.
The appropriations bill provides almost $1.9 billion for nonproliferation programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration—down $106.4 million, or 5.6 percent, from FY 2017 levels. Meanwhile, it provides $9.2 billion for current nuclear weapons programs, a $993.7 million, or 10.7 percent, increase over FY 2017.
NNSA is part of the Department of Energy, which is responsible for nuclear warheads; the Department of Defense is responsible for nuclear delivery systems. The increased funds will cover the rising cost of current warhead maintenance and infrastructure programs—not more or different nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the nonproliferation budget will see cuts to programs that help keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists, according to James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
“This [bill] would be pretty alarming for nuclear security and broad efforts that we’ve had for decades to try to secure nuclear material around the world,” McKeon told ThinkProgress in an interview.
“This [bill] would be pretty alarming for nuclear security…”
The funding measure passed 235–192, with 5 Democrats voting for, 5 Republicans voting against, and 6 representatives abstaining. It still needs approval from the Senate — a thin possibility, observers say, given the largely partisan House vote and the 60-vote threshold needed to avoid a Senate filibuster.
Those odds may be even thinner because of an amendment to partially fund a wall on the United States’ southern border with Mexico — a promise President Donald Trump made the cornerstone of his 2016 campaign.
Both the House bill and a separate Senate bill that has yet to come up for a vote continue a years-long course, set under the Obama administration, of funding nuclear weapons at the expense of nonproliferation and security programs. So did Trump’s budget proposal, released in May.
“The Obama administration put us on this course,” Erica Fein, advocacy director at the advocacy group Win Without War, told ThinkProgress shortly after the Trump budget came out. “They just did it quietly.”
Given that continuity, it’s not clear how Trump will seek to put his stamp on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Before taking office, he signaled that he would dramatically shift the longstanding, bipartisan position on nonproliferation and nuclear arms reduction—indicating his policy would be one of buildup.
“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” then President-elect Trump tweeted last December, “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
The next day, in an off-camera call with MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, Trump dismissed concerns about a nuclear arms race with Russia and China. “Let it be an arms race,” Trump reportedly said. “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
And yet Trump has also made statements that appear to support the status quo. “We want the world to be — we want to bring peace to the world,” he said during a major foreign policy speech in April 2016. “Too much destruction out there, too many destructive weapons. The power of weaponry is the single biggest problem that we have today in the world.”
Any major policy shifts could come when the Trump administration releases its Nuclear Posture Review—a long, periodic statement of U.S. nuclear policy currently underway at the Department of Defense. The last Nuclear Posture Review, released in 2010, set ambitious goals for nonproliferation and narrowed the circumstances under which the U.S. would consider using nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review could roll back those changes or make some other dramatic shifts in longstanding policies. But previous Nuclear Posture Reviews have emphasized continuity over change, according to Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.
“Based on what Trump has said, there could be major changes coming for U.S. nuclear policy,” Reif told ThinkProgress in an interview. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”
“The Obama administration put us on this course… They just did it quietly.”
For now, the continuity between Obama-administration policies, the Trump budget, and the House appropriations bill means whatever funding measure finally passes the Senate is unlikely to change the balance between weapons and nonproliferation, experts say.
One split between the White House and the House bill on nuclear issues is the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility—a program at the Savannah River Site, a Department of Energy nuclear facility in South Caroline, that’s meant to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants.
Both the FY 2017 Obama budget and the DY 2018 Trump budget tried to eliminate the program in favor of diluting surplus weapons-grade plutonium and storing it. The MOX program has run chronically over budget and behind schedule, and its critics say those budget overlays could fund other nonproliferation priorities.
Advocates who spoke with ThinkProgress pointed to zeroing out MOX as a bright spot in the Trump budget for nonproliferation. But the House budget restores funding for the program for the second year in a row—a move largely driven, observers say, by the South Carolina and Georgia congressional delegations.
“Let it be an arms race,” said Trump.
A separate Senate appropriations bill, which hasn’t yet come up for a vote, follows the Trump and Obama budgets by eliminating funding for the MOX program. The House Appropriations Committee’s report on energy and water appropriations also left the door open to zeroing out MOX if NNSA can provide assurances that the alternative dilute-and-store method for disposing of surplus plutonium would comply with current law and treaty obligations.
Those signs point toward MOX’s increasing vulnerability, despite continued funding in the House appropriations bill, according to Nickolas Roth, a research associate at Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom.
“Support for cancelling the MOX program is growing,” Roth told ThinkProgress in an interview. “Both the Obama and Trump administrations have called for cancelling the program, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress are coming around to the reality that it is simply not worth the cost.”
The House accepted an amendment by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), to move $10 million from NNSA weapons activity over to combatting bioterrorism. However, it shot down an amendment by five Democratic lawmakers to move $921 million from nuclear weapons activities to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, along with a separate amendment that would have restored some of the money cut from nonproliferation programs.
Whatever happens with these individual line items in the final Senate-passed funding bill, however, the larger trend, carried over from the Obama administration, remains. Meanwhile, experts continue to worry loose nuclear materials could wind up in the wrong hands.
“Over the last five years or so, there’s been a worrying trend of cuts to nonproliferation programs. This bill is just no exception to that,” said McKeon, of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “And with the threat of nuclear terrorism that is still there, we believe these programs deserve more funding, not less.”