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"Forget the Rest" blog

September 8, 2011


Bulletin #128: Senate funders would (re-)start construction of $6 billion plutonium fortress in Los Alamos but cut back next year's budget somewhat

Dear Study Group friends and colleagues –

As promised, here's the news.  It is decidedly mixed.

  • The Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) in a 29-to-1 vote approved the Energy and Water markup (pdf) for fiscal year (FY) 2012 proposed by the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee on Tuesday. 

  • While professing to favor postponing construction of the actual new plutonium facility itself until it is 90% designed (which the SAC hopes would occur at this time next year, for which purpose it would appropriate $125 million), the SAC would also provide $40 million (M) for initial construction, which could start as early as next month, and another $40 M for the purchase of specialized equipment (e.g. plutonium vault doors, specialized nuclear air-handling equipment).   

  • In all, the SAC would allocate $35 M for equipment installation in the first of the two Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) buildings (the Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building, RLUOB), and another $205 million for the CMRR Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). 

Here is the table sent in Bulletin #127 with the missing cells filled in:

Nuclear “Weapons Activities” markups (in millions of dollars, as of 9/6/11)

FY2011 Enacted

FY2012 Request

FY2012 House (approved by House)

FY2012 SEWD (not yet approved by Senate)





Change from FY2011


+195.26 (+3%)

+293.60 (+4%)

Change from FY 2012 Request

-497.72 (-7%)

-399.38 (-5%)

CMRR (includes RLUOB + NF, both buildings)





Change from FY 2012 Request

-100.00 in early construction funds; no FY2012 CMRR-NF construction allowed

-60; initial construction ($40 M) and initial equipment procurement ($40 M) allowed

Our regional journalists were admirably on top of the situation:

The Journal article repeats a factual error made by Chairwoman Feinstein, in which she claimed the "nuclear posture review" and "discussions about the new START treaty" somehow forced the committee to fund the nuclear weapons priorities it did. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said the budget increases approved by the committee should be sufficient to meet national security needs.

“The increase follows the highest priorities identified in the nuclear posture review and developed during the discussions about the new START treaty,” Feinstein said at the hearing.

She also pointed out that much of the weapons modernization spending is mandated by treaties or existing federal law, highlighting spending for new nuclear materials buildings at Los Alamos and at Oak Ridge in Tennessee.

Feinstein, who has opposed efforts to expand America’s nuclear weapons capabilities in the past, noted that the mandatory weapons spending erodes money for other projects.

“I have to point out this is mandatory spending,” she said. “The increases in security spending come at the expense of nondefense water and energy projects.”

In other words, "the White House and Senate Republicans made me do it." 

Funding and building CMRR is a negotiated outcome, and no kind of legal requirement or "mandate."  Newspapers should not allow Ms. Feinstein to get away with this sort of misrepresentation.  It happens all the time.  

I believe, in her case, that she really does want to do the right thing at some level, but there is a system or net of passivity that runs from the White House, to her, to her hard-working personal and committee staff, and on to journalists and to us. 

It was a Republican majority in the House who said, in the corresponding report that has now passed the House as a whole (pdf, discussed here),

Project 04–D–125, Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR), Los Alamos National Laboratory.—The Committee recommends $200,000,000, $100,000,000 below the budget request. The Committee fully supports the Administration’s plans to modernize the infrastructure, but intends to closely review the funding requests for new investments to ensure those plans adhere to good project management practices. The latest funding profile provided to the Committee indicates that over half the funding requested for the Nuclear Facility would be used to start early construction activities. The recommendation will support the full request for design activities, but does not provide the additional funding to support early construction. The NNSA is not prepared to award that project milestone since it must first resolve major seismic issues with its design, complete its work to revalidate which capabilities are needed, and make a decision on its contracting and acquisition strategies. (p. 131)

So while Republicans are asking these and other fundamental questions about CMRR-NF in the House, Democrats are not.  To their credit, Senate Democrats are asking a host of tough questions about the ambitious and provocative B61 life extension project (LEP), as the Journal's article points out. 

But let's go with Ms. Feinstein for a moment.   The Journal:

Feinstein, who has opposed efforts to expand America’s nuclear weapons capabilities in the past, noted that the mandatory weapons spending [sic] erodes money for other projects. 

"I have to point out this is mandatory spending,” she said. [sic] 'The increases in security spending come at the expense of nondefense water and energy projects.” 

Roger Snodgrass's article includes another quote to the same effect, which is even more poignant:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, co-chair of the energy subcommittee that passed the funding blueprint Tuesday, agreed. "Essentially, the large nuclear mandate [again, sic] drives down the money for everything else, and it's wrong," she said. "It bumps right up against the rest of energy, ARPA-E and the Office of Science." ARPA-E is a fund for advanced research on energy issues.

Yes, nuclear weapons sure do cut into the energy budget.  The proposed budget for CMRR for FY2012 ($240 million) is three times the proposed national total for wind research ($80 M).  It is seven times the proposed national figure for geothermal research ($34 M).  It is almost as much as the amount proposed solar energy research ($290 M).  It is more than weatherization assistance nationally ($174 M) and also more than cleanup at LANL ($185 M). 

Meanwhile the national budget for construction of levees and other similar Army Corps projects have been drastically slashed, from $2.2 billion in 2008 to $1.6 billion this year, "despite a huge backlog of projects and significant flooding since Katrina" as Senator Landrieu's plea for help was paraphrased in the New Mexican.

So you see what Ms. Feinstein is talking about. 

Somehow we have got to get our Democrats -- decent people, but not very courageous -- to do more than just complain.  Feinstein, Bingaman -- these are very powerful people.  A clear word from either one could change these priorities quite a bit -- including halting CMRR-NF. 

The problem is that they are not hearing clear words from us

Greg Mello, for the Study Group

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