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Obama budget puts Los Alamos facility on hold

By AP  | February 13, 2012

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The budget proposal put forth by President Barack Obama on Monday could spell the beginning of the end for the planned construction of a $6 billion plutonium research laboratory that critics have long billed as an unnecessary attempt to expand the nation's nuclear bomb building mission.

Obama's budget proposes putting on hold for five years plans to build the so-called Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, essentially saying it is not necessary.

That's what critics have been arguing years.

"It's very good news," said Greg Mello, director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group. "And it is [could be] part of a wider reassessment of what is truly necessary in the nuclear weapons budgets in both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense."

Although the budget doesn't officially kill the program, Mello said the action effectively marks its demise.

"This is the end of this project," he said.

Instead, the administration's budget would fund a similar project in Tennessee. With last year's budget cutting mandate, many expected only one of the two projects could survive

DOE officials emphasized the project was deferred, not cut. Officials at the lab referred questions to Washington, where the National Nuclear Security Administration planned a Monday afternoon conference call to discuss the budget.

Lab officials have for years contended CMRR is needed to replace a 1940s-era facility that is beyond renovation yet crucial to supporting its mission as the primary center for maintaining and developing the country's stockpile of nuclear weapons. While much of the work is classified, they said the lab's mission was to do analytical work to support the nearby Plutonium Facility, or PF-4, which is the only building in the country equipped for making the pits that power nuclear weapons.

Critics, however, called it an effort by the DOE and NNSA to escalate the production of new nuclear weapons and turn what has largely been a research facility into a bomb factory. And they questioned the wisdom of continuing with the project after a 2007 seismic study showed a higher than previously known risk for a major earthquake in the area.

The Obama administration said Monday that the NNSA "has determined in consultation with the national laboratories that existing infrastructure in the nuclear complex has the inherent capacity to provide adequate support for these missions."

Mello said that's exactly what he has been arguing in two lawsuits that sought to halt construction of CMRR, contending the federal government had refused to look at alternatives despite increased seismic threats that sent the price tag soaring.

"They are choosing different alternatives for CMRR's missions — in fact, the very same alternatives we recommended," he said.

Mello said the decision will likely have little impact long-term on Los Alamos, which is the premier facility in the nation's nuclear weapons complex.

"It will mean that the CMRR construction jobs are not going to happen," he said. "It will mean that some engineers will have to find some other work. ... But they are perfectly capable of continuing on and on and on."

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