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"Forget the Rest" blog


Sandia Wins, LANL Loses In Fed Nuke Proposal

By John Fleck and Michael Coleman / Journal Staff Writers on Tue, Feb 14, 2012

ABQJRNLThe Obama administration wants to spend $3 billion on nuclear weapons work in New Mexico next year, but notably absent from its annual funding request to Congress is money for a plutonium lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

After spending more than $600 million over nearly a decade without starting construction, the National Nuclear Security Administration on Monday asked Congress to indefinitely postpone work on the proposed new plutonium-handling building at LANL.

However, funding for nuclear weapons work at Sandia National Laboratories would jump 30 percent next year under the budget proposal, primarily for refurbishing aging nuclear weapons.

In other major budget requests affecting New Mexico, money for radioactive waste disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad would drop 7 percent while funding for environmental cleanup at Los Alamos would increase 27 percent.

The decision not to seek funding for the LANL project drew immediate questions and criticism from across the New Mexico political spectrum.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the decision runs counter to previous consensus in Washington. He’s hosting a hearing on the DOE budget Thursday.

“For years we have been told the CMRR nuclear facility was necessary; now we’re being told there may be alternatives,” said Bingaman, who is not seeking re-election. “I look forward to hearing more from the administration about this change in plans.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement that “both the Bush and Obama Administrations called for the CMRR to satisfy New START (nuclear arms reduction treaty) obligations and to address the growing safety issues at the 50-year-old building it’s meant to replace.”

“I have concerns about how this will affect the lab employees working in the outdated building and its impact on Northern New Mexico,” Udall said.

“As a result of the Budget Control Act, which I did not support, funding cuts are being recommended across the government in order to meet deficit reduction targets,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said in a statement. “While the CMRR project has been targeted, we cannot forget that Los Alamos National Laboratory plays an integral role in our nation as well as in New Mexico. I remain committed to working with my colleagues in Congress to support Los Alamos National Laboratory, advance scientific research, continue environmental remediation, and reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons around the world.”

Former Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican seeking Bingaman’s Senate seat, said the decision represents a broken promise by the Obama administration that will cost New Mexico 1,000 jobs over the next decade.

“Not only is this bad for our country and its national security, it’s bad for New Mexico and our economy,” Wilson said.

State Auditor Hector Balderas, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said he’s also concerned about the impact the cuts could have on jobs in northern New Mexico. He said the abrupt nature of the cuts “perhaps highlights the need to rethink and retool the missions of some of our labs.”

Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich, also is running for the Senate, questioned the effect on the lab’s obligations to maintain U.S. nuclear weapons in the face of arms reduction under the New START treaty with the Russians.

“I have concerns that the administration has not adequately explained to the public this change in policy or how it will affect our national security and LANL’s mission to execute our New START responsibilities,” Heinrich said in a statement.

Increase requested

Overall, the administration is asking for $7.6 billion nationwide for NNSA nuclear weapons work, a 5 percent increase. By slicing the Los Alamos project from its spending plan, nuclear weapons spending in New Mexico would be unchanged from 2012.

The NNSA has repeatedly argued that the new Los Alamos plutonium lab, with a price tag estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion by the time it is completed in the early 2020s, is critical to maintaining the nation’s nuclear deterrent. Know as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, it would have replaced an aging Los Alamos building where plutonium researchers now work.

Testifying before Congress last fall, NNSA chief Tom D’Agostino described the project as “vital to national security.”

But in statements to Congress on Monday accompanying the Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request, the agency backtracked and took a position long held by critics – that existing U.S. nuclear facilities are sufficient to do the work.

The decision not to seek funding marks a major victory for a loose-knit group of project opponents, especially the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit. The Study Group had filed suit, arguing the federal government had not properly considered alternatives to the multibillion dollar project. While the group lost in court, the final decision mirrors some of the key arguments it had been making.

“This is more or less exactly what we told them,” Study Group Director Greg Mello said in an interview Monday.

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal.

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