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By John Fleck and Michael Coleman / Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal on Thu, Apr 11, 2013

N.M. nuke spending would grow

The Obama administration Wednesday proposed a 23 percent increase in the budget for U.S. nuclear weapons research, manufacturing and maintenance over the next five years.

The increase, which in part would fund work at Los Alamos and Sandia labs in New Mexico, is an effort to refurbish aging nuclear weapons and the labs and plants needed to maintain them, even as the nation reduces the size of its nuclear stockpile, federal officials said during a series of budget briefings. Courtesy NNSA

The budget request asks Congress to provide $7.89 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear weapons activities in fiscal year 2014, up from $7.56 billion this year. By 2018, the proposed weapons activities budget would rise to $9.29 billion, according to the budget request.

At Los Alamos, overall spending by the NNSA and other programs within the Department of Energy would rise from $1.83 billion this year to $1.96 billion in 2014, a 7 percent increase. Included in that is a nearly $32 million increase in environmental cleanup money.

The budget proposal also includes money to study alternatives at Los Alamos to the construction of a new plutonium research center, an over-budget multibillion-dollar project the Obama administration put on hold a year ago. The idea is to find a way to build a “smaller and cheaper” project that will still meet the needs for plutonium research and bomb part manufacturing, acting NNSA chief Neile Miller told reporters in a telephone briefing.

At Sandia National Laboratories, total spending by the NNSA and other Department of Energy programs in 2014 would be $1.81 billion, essentially unchanged from the current year.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, a nuclear waste disposal site, would get $203 million under the proposed budget, down from $215 million this year.

The budget request now goes to Congress, which uses the proposal as the starting point for its deliberations over the budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility at LANL

Daniel R. Poneman, DOE’s deputy secretary, told the Journal at a press briefing in Washington on Wednesday that the weapons increase reflects Obama’s commitment to maintaining an effective nuclear arsenal.

“The president has been – and remains – very clear that we are going to be good stewards of the deterrent to defend our nation and our allies,” Poneman said.

Poneman pointed out that a significant part of the increase is directed toward bricks-and-mortar improvements across the nation’s weapons complex but lamented a “tough decision” last year to defer for at least five years a major plutonium project at LANL.

“We are committed to, first, the safe and secure operation of the facilities we’ve got and, second, to make sure that as we recapitalize that we are making responsible budgetary choices.”

Poneman also said Obama’s budget showed a commitment to keeping and recruiting the nation’s best nuclear scientists.

“To have a bunch of really great facilities without having the scientific acumen to actually do the work responsibly and well would not avail us, so we’re trying to take a balanced approach,” Poneman said.

N.M. spending

Overall, New Mexico spending by the Department of Energy, primarily nuclear weapons work but also other research at the labs and elsewhere, would rise from $4.48 billion to $4.65 billion next year, a 4 percent increase.

New Mexico’s fiscal gain is South Carolina’s loss. NNSA officials slashed money for an over-budget South Carolina plutonium disposal program as a way of making ends meet, officials said Wednesday.

Nuclear weapons critics said the spending increase is not necessary, pointing to a history of over-budget programs like the one in South Carolina being cut.

“They don’t need to spend money on that scale to meet their present mission, because they haven’t dug out enough waste yet,” said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group in Albuquerque.

New Mexico elected officials praised the proposed spending plan.

“I’m encouraged that Los Alamos and Sandia labs are well-supported in the president’s budget proposal,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “Securing funding for the labs and our military installations ensures that New Mexico can fulfill its key national security missions, and strengthens our economy by providing quality jobs in our state.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., was also supportive, singling out spending for the labs as significant for New Mexico. But he complained that the money for environmental cleanup at did not go far enough.

“Funding for DOE’s cleanup activities at LANL and WIPP need urgent improvement to meet DOE’s commitment to New Mexico,” Udall said in a statement.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal.

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