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Senate Energy-Water Bill Advanced Amid Nuclear Weapons Debate

Concerns raised about funding low-yield nuclear weapon

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was the lone vote opposing a $43.8 billion draft Energy-Water fiscal 2019 spending measure that the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced Thursday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was the lone vote opposing a $43.8 billion draft Energy-Water fiscal 2019 spending measure that the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced Thursday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced 30-1 Thursday a $43.8 billion draft Energy-Water fiscal 2019 spending measure before entering into a lengthy consideration of how to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium and the development of new low-yield nuclear weapons.

The bill would boost spending for the Energy Department, Army Corps of Engineers and related programs by $566 million compared to fiscal 2018 enacted appropriations and is $7.2 billion more than the Trump administration requested. The House version would fund the same agencies at $44.7 billion.

The committee considered four amendments to the bill and approved two: a manager’s amendment and one from Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to expand the scope and federal agency participation for a study of moving the Appalachian Regional Commission’s headquarters.

Among the amendments not added was a measure, eventually withdrawn, from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to prevent DOE from abandoning the over-budget, behind-schedule MOX facility in South Carolina that was to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants.

Graham represented the lone dissenting vote on advancing the bill out of committee. He has expressed opposition to a new DOE strategy for disposing of the 34 metric tons of plutonium at a facility in New Mexico.

“Someone needs to be held accountable for starting programs like this, signing deals with the Russians and saying oh, never mind, after you get 70 percent complete,” Graham said. “You want to talk about the swamp, this is the swamp.”

The plan was the result of a 2000 disarmament treaty with the Russian Federation that was updated in 2010.

The new DOE strategy would call for a “dilute-and-dispose” approach for the plutonium, in which the material would be processed and diluted for storage in a defense repository in southeastern New Mexico. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Energy-Water Appropriations panel, argued this approach would represent $30 billion in savings compared to continuing the MOX project.

“Both Secretary Perry of the Trump administration and Secretary Moniz in the Obama administration agree that the project should be terminated because it costs too much,” Alexander said.

The savings, Alexander argued, would help free up money for other programs.

Still, pitfalls in the new strategy have yet to be worked out. New Mexico’s Democratic Sen. Tom Udall backed Graham’s argument, noting that the federal government has so far failed to adequately inform the state of safety risks and offer additional incentives for holding the waste. The opposition of Udall and Graham could become a roadblock for the plan.

“So far it’s a bad idea for New Mexico,” Udall said.

Nuclear weapon concerns

As their counterparts did at the committee markup of the House’s Energy-Water bill, Democrats expressed concern over funding for an additional low-yield nuclear weapon — the W76 warhead — as part of the administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review recommendation.

“I strongly believe the only purpose of a low-yield nuclear weapon is to fight a nuclear war,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “That should frighten all of us because I don’t believe there is such a thing of limited nuclear war.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., offered an amendment to redirect $65 million for the W76 weapon to DOE’s nonproliferation account.That amendment was defeated, 12-19.

Feinstein was successful in preventing funding in the original bill language for another nuclear weapon — the B83, a warhead with 75 times the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. She threatened to hold up the bill if the funding was included.

In a statement attached to a Democratic summary of the legislation, Feinstein said she was “disappointed the bill includes unnecessary funding for new nuclear weapons,” but said the measure “is the result of a truly bipartisan process.”

The Energy-Water bill represents the first appropriations bill to move out of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the fiscal 2019 cycle. Alexander said during the markup he hopes it can be one of the first few slated for floor consideration.

Alexander told reporters Wednesday that floor consideration of the bill will need to wait for House action before the Senate can pass its version. He said Senate consideration could come via a “minibus” vote in which the chamber would vote on multiple spending bills.

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