Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor: Sen. Alexander to Follow New Defense Secretary’s Lead on UPF, Other Nuclear Issues

Posted on February 20, 2015

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls much of the Department of Energy’s funding, said last week that he expects to rely on Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for advice on the Uranium Processing Facility and other topics associated with nuclear and national security. Alexander was supportive of Carter’s nomination and, after the Senate confirmed him by a vote of 93-5 last week, the Republican senator said Carter’s considerable experience would be valuable during a “critical time.”

On the day before the confirmation, Alexander said the two spent about 45 minutes in the senator’s office discussing nuclear deterrence. “We talked specifically about that,” Alexander said in an interview. “I asked him for his best advice on our nuclear weapons modernization program. We’ve embarked on a significant and expensive effort to make sure that our weapons work if we need to use them. And I want to make sure that (a) they work and (b) that we’re not wasting any money because we don’t have any money to waste.”

Alexander noted that Carter has significant experience with the nuclear weapons complex. “As Secretary of Defense, he’ll be very helpful to me because he’s got experience with dealing with not only weapons modernization but with the uranium facility (UPF) as well. His advice will be very helpful as we try to allocate the billions of dollars that we’re asked to spend carefully and wisely.”

‘It Is Time That We Came to a Cap’

Alexander said he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, established the $6.5 billion spending cap for the project that’s now being scaled down and put into a modular design to reduce costs and speed completion. “The problem we were having was the cost of UPF was going up a billion dollars every time we turned around,” the Tennessee Republican said. “What we decided was to do a Red Team review and say to the managers, complete your design to 90 percent, taking into account all these factors, and you’ve got no more than $6.5 billion to spend and then come back to us with a plan and with a budget and we would like to see it built on time and on budget.”

Asked if the $6.5 billion was an absolute cap or if it could be adjusted, Alexander responded: “It is time that we came to a cap, and Senator Feinstein and I gave the Red Team that number for a reason and they made their recommendations based on that. We can’t have a project that goes up a half-billion or a billion dollars every year just because somebody comes up with a new idea. It’s a cap that we expect. … The new uranium facility should be designed to spend no more than $6.5 billion. That’s the direction we gave to the project manager.”

Asked if the government could afford to construct UPF and the National Nuclear Security Administration’s other massive construction project, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River, at the same time, Alexander said, “Well, that’s a completely separate question. We have to take each of these projects one by one. And I think we’ve done a good job of getting hold of the Uranium Processing Facility. It may be the largest federal construction project in the country. It’s certainly one of them. And there are other projects, including MOX … and whatever needs to be done at Sandia that we’re going to have to address as well.”

CRs Are ‘Really Lazy Governing’

Alexander said he was going to do whatever he could to pass an actual budget for 2016. “It’s been several years since we’ve had one. … A Continuing Resolution is really lazy governing. Each year, in our subcommittee, we have eliminated major projects and added money to other projects. That’s the way we should do our appropriations work rather than just spend next year what we spent last year. Plus, managers, like the director of the lab or the project managers for Y-12 actually save money for the taxpayer when they have the certainty of a steady appropriations process,” he said.

Alexander added, “I hope that as far as UPF goes, I fully expect that once we figure out what the proper number is, that there’ll be sufficient funds to continue site preparation, to complete design work and to do some moving of equipment that is necessary during the next fiscal year and that for the next several years we’ll be able to appropriate several hundred million dollars a year until the project is completed. If we should do that on a planned and steady basis, it’ll save the taxpayers lots of money and speed up construction.”