'The full puzzle': Fleischmann already funded nuclear in Oak Ridge. Now, the military, too

If Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's advocacy in Congress had to be summed up in a single word, it would be "nuclear."

That's not just nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, but nuclear cleanup as well. Fleischmann's influence over nuclear projects is tied to his role as an appropriator in the House of Representatives overseeing funding to the Department of Energy.

Fleischmann, a Republican, represents Tennessee's 3rd District, which includes Chattanooga and Oak Ridge. Since becoming chairman of the House subcommittee on energy and water projects in 2023, he has funneled record amounts of money to nuclear projects in Oak Ridge.

Now, he has a new seat on the House subcommittee on defense appropriations, his office announced April 16. The new role will give him a say not only in nuclear weapons production, but in their final customer, the military. Fleischmann has been an outspoken advocate for expansive military aid to Israel and Ukraine, breaking ranks with several other Tennessee representatives.

Some highlights of the latest energy and water budget that Fleischmann led are:

  • $24.135 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the U.S. arsenal of nuclear warheads. That's $1.972 billion more than last year's funding.
  • $810 million for the Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12 in Oak Ridge. That's $50 million more than the Biden administration’s request.
  • $8.24 billion for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That's $140 million more than last year's funding.
  • $255 million for the ORNL Leadership Computing Facility, the home of Frontier, the world’s fastest supercomputer.

The bill also included funding for research into a new kind of nuclear reactor for naval ships and submarines, a program that was headed for defunding and which Fleischmann's colleagues had implored him to fund.

Knox News spoke with Fleischmann about his new position and about the state of nuclear power and the nuclear triad, a phrase that describes the three delivery systems for nuclear weapons: air (bombers), land (missiles) and sea (submarine-launched missiles).

Perhaps his greatest single funding measure is $2.8 billion to revamp American uranium enrichment in Ohio. The U.S. stopped enriching uranium at the end of the Cold War, eventually becoming reliant on Russia for nuclear fuel.

This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why Fleischmann's new military funding position matters

Knox News: It's been a little over a year that you've been chairman of the energy and water subcommittee, and I'm wondering what that experience has been like for you.

Fleischmann: It's been an incredible experience on several levels. Ever since I have been an appropriator, I've served on the energy and water subcommittee. When Senator (Lamar) Alexander came to me in my infancy in Congress, my first year, he said in a very laudatory way, "Chuck, you're extremely intelligent, you're extremely capable. Have you ever thought about being an appropriator?" And I said, "No, sir." And he said, "Well, how many times do administration officials return your phone calls?" I summarily said, "Never." He said, "You go on appropriations, they will return your phone call that day." Truer words have never been spoken.

At that point in time, he called the late great Howard Baker, who called my friend Hal Rogers, who's the dean of Congress now, and said, "We're gonna get Fleischmann on appropriations, but he's got to be on energy and water, largely because of the Oak Ridge Reservation." I love Chattanooga. It's the greatest midsize city in America. I love it every day. But Oak Ridge is the city that made me a national member of Congress, there's no question. The depths, the breadths and the strength of the Department of Energy reservation have been incredible.

From that time on, I've been probably the staunchest advocate for Oak Ridge in Congress. We actually wrote, passed and negotiated in my view probably the best energy and water bill in over a decade in Congress and that's not just me talking – that's Republicans, Democrats, independents, the administration. We just really were very fortunate in a very tumultuous time.

Knox News: How do you see these two positions – chairman of energy and water and this new seat on the Defense Appropriations Committee – overlapping? What will this new seat allow you to do?

Fleischmann: My goal was to get on defense for one main reason. My advocacy in Congress has always been nuclear: civil nuclear and nuclear weapons. If we look to the Oak Ridge Reservation, the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is part of the Department of Energy, is responsible for the procurement, production and maintenance of our nation's nuclear arsenal. Without defense, it was going to be a situation where I could never complete the full puzzle for the benefit of the country. What I mean by that is, now I fund the production and I also fund the ultimate customer, which is the Department of Defense.

Fleischmann says US should beef up nuclear arsenal in response to Russia and China

Knox News: Our nation's nuclear threat posture has changed substantially since you took office in 2011. What do you think is the proper response to those rising nuclear threats from our adversaries?

Fleischmann: I'm rather senior now. I remember the demise of the Soviet Union. And when that happened, I thought that there would be this tremendous peace dividend and hopefully it would reduce the world's threat of the potential horror of any country using a nuclear weapon. That is a very small club, but it is a club. There are about 10 countries that have the capability to launch a nuclear weapon.

I've always maintained that the best posture is to have a strong deterrence, meaning having not only an updated nuclear arsenal and a strong triad, but one that continues to make sure that we stay ahead of our adversaries. I'll be specific: Russia and China, who are investing millions, and not only in their nuclear arsenals. China right now is developing their own triad, which is inherently dangerous, in my view.

Russia does a lot of things wrong. Unfortunately, they do nuclear and nuclear weapons very well. And the fact that Vladimir Putin did what was in my view the unthinkable, threaten to use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield, was in many ways a game changer. Bottom line: We are funding through the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) and America has and will have the strongest deterrent now. We just need to keep that in place in the future.

Knox News: You have been a vocal advocate for both Ukraine and Israel. What should America's main defense priorities be in 2024? Do we need to be focused on intervention or do we need to be focused closer to home?

Fleischmann: We live in a very dangerous world. I step back and I assess the world threat. Obviously, Russia's invasion into Ukraine is destabilizing. As we aid Ukraine, as we look at other parts of the world, as we aid Israel, as we work to maintain a deterrent threat to keep mainland China out of Taiwan, as we look around the world, we've got to do several things.

We've got to fund our military. What that means is when we deplete as we did recently – successfully working with the British and other allies to shoot down Iranian drones and missiles – those missiles are extremely expensive. So it's twofold. We need to replace those and we need to have the funds necessary to replace those. When we look at an aid package, whether it's Israel or Ukraine, we have to realize that we are expending resources in the process of just being in the neighborhood.

Y-12 Uranium Processing Facility runs over budget and over time

Knox News: Several funding items in the latest water and energy bill, including Y-12's Uranium Processing Facility, were funded at quite a higher level than what the administration requested. Why is it important to give them more money than is requested?

Fleischmann: I have a lot of issues with this administration. Let me be fair: Their number was not abysmal, but it was just too low for what we need. In many areas, it is abysmal across the DOE spectrum. I believe they put $800 million on the Uranium Processing Facility in the president's budget and allow me to address that.

The Y-12 NNSA facility has for years done an exemplary job. In a nutshell, it basically performs the function of doing the secondaries on nuclear weapons. That facility is literally falling apart. Chunks of concrete have come down over the years. The workers are working in extremely adverse conditions. That's common knowledge. So I broke ground years ago on a facility called the Uranium Processing Facility. We're also going to be building a Lithium Processing Facility on site. All of that is dedicated to making sure the next generation of nuclear weapons are done safely and efficiently. In a nutshell, Oak Ridge has been and is the uranium center of the country for nuclear weapons.

Knox News: The Uranium Processing Facility was originally budgeted at $6.5 billion, but with the last few years of appropriations, it's looking like the project could go well beyond $6.5 billion. Are you concerned about costs ballooning for that project and that cost potentially falling on taxpayers?

Fleischmann: Let me be clear: It will exceed $6.5 billion now, unfortunately, and it will take longer to complete than was originally expected. However, we had the disruptive effects of COVID. We had inflation. We had a lot of challenges, none of which were related to the funding. We have actually had to supplement the funding from time to time. Cost overruns, in not only that facility, but just about every major construction project in the country have been experienced. The only good news is that most of that facility was completed on the front end of that construction curve beginning about a decade ago.

It will cost more, it will take longer, but for the nation's defense, we need to get that done. Not only the Oak Ridge community and our state, but my friends in Congress on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly support what we're doing in Oak Ridge to build the Uranium Processing Facility.

Oak Ridge radioactive cleanup is clean, Fleischmann says

Knox News: Y-12 is taking steps to make sure that the surrounding environment is not contaminated, specifically by mercury, as they pull down some Manhattan Project buildings. How important is it to protect the surrounding environment as the skyline changes at Y-12 and ORNL and what steps can Congress take to make sure that happens?

Fleischmann: I'm the leading environmentalist on nuclear cleanup in the country, whether it's the House or the Senate. I chaired the Nuclear Cleanup Caucus, which is a bipartisan caucus where literally Republicans and Democrats work together cleaning up legacy sites.

Years ago, during the Manhattan Project, during the Cold War, whether it was Oak Ridge, Savannah River, Los Alamos, Idaho, we were not as careful in the way that we produced nuclear weapons environmentally and for the care of the workers. Many workers were affected and that's why we have robust funding to take care of the sick workers from decades ago.

All of that is removed right now. We do it safely. We do it in an economic way, a safe way that is done well for our workers, and it is environmentally inherently safe. So as we clean up and we rebuild, we are very meticulous. There's layers of safety regulations from the federal government to make sure that our modern nuclear arsenal is done in a way that is not only safe to workers, but to the environment. Having said that, we've got decades worth of work, and I stress decades, around the country to clean up our legacy.

Why the US is enriching uranium again
Knox News: You have also supported funding for a lot of advanced nuclear projects, like small modular reactors and fusion. One example would be $790 million for Fusion Energy Sciences through the DOE Office of Science for the current fiscal year. But nuclear is famously volatile, and I'm wondering what makes you confident that the current advanced nuclear projects won't face the same delays and failures that advanced nuclear projects have for decades?

Fleischmann: Let's make a delineation between fission and fusion. They're very different sciences. Fission is provable, knowable and doable. TVA does 47% of its current electric load from nuclear. Other utilities are using a lot of existing traditional nuclear. The new nuclear portfolio, whether they're small modular reactors, advanced reactors or micro reactors are going to provide an opportunity for the country to get to clean energy goals. It's one of the few things that I've seen many progressives and many conservatives come together on.

There will be delays because we are exceedingly safe. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the strictest guidelines of any nuclear agency in the world, so some of our allies and some of our foes are moving ahead of us. I'll be specific: The French and the South Koreans are very robust in this. The Russians and Chinese, our adversaries, are very robust in this. But we're going to be much safer and more meticulous. We've got the potential to fund a generation three small modular reactor and we will probably have a first nuclear small modular reactor at Clinch River now, because some of the other modalities have just not come into fruition.

We are still years away from a commercially viable fusion program. That will continue to gain and get support. I will say this, whether it's fission or fusion, Oak Ridge is the world's leader.

Knox News: The Department of Energy has stated that we could run down our current store of bomb-grade uranium and if that were to happen, we might have to kickstart production of bomb-grade uranium again in the U.S. Is that something that concerns you or something that you think should happen?

Fleischmann: For a while, and this is very sad, the United States lost its capability to domestically enrich uranium, whether that was at weapons grade or non-weapons grade. We rely on companies like Urenco which is Dutch, British and German. But I put $2.8 billion in the budget with the support of the administration and we all came together on that, for specifically domestic uranium enrichment.

So there'll be a capability on the civil side, but yes, ultimately we will need to. We've got plenty of plutonium in this country, so much so that they're trying to get rid of it, but we need uranium and we will work on that domestically. I can say this: Parts were built in Oak Ridge, but we're spinning centrifuges now in Ohio domestically, so we're back in the game.



This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://fleischmann.house.gov/media/in-the-news/the-full-puzzle-fleischmann-already-funded-nuclear-in-oak-ridge-now-the-military-too