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House panel cuts budget for LANL nuke facility

Lab foes: Bill is vindication after project's court victory

6/16/2011

By Roger Snodgrass | For The New Mexican

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee passed a measure this week intended to cut a $1.1 billion chunk out of the Obama administration's $11.7 billion proposal for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

NNSA funds the nuclear weapons complex around the country, including more than $4 billion annually for Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

The committee's Republican majority approved slicing nearly a half-billion dollars from nuclear weapons programs and slightly less from nonproliferation programs for securing nuclear materials around the world.

Jack Jekowski of Albuquerque, whose Innovative Technology Partnerships provides consulting and support services in the national security arena, said Thursday he tends not to watch the "roller coaster ride that occurs during the budget process." But, he said, "We're seeing the beginning of a more aligned movement to address the overall budget gap. The weapons modernization program, the realignment of the complex — everything is on the table."

The proposed reductions would affect the new nuclear weapons modernization program that flourished in the budget process earlier this year when significant increases were included for the laboratories here.

Among the apparent casualties of Wednesday's vote was the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, a proposed plutonium storage and handling structure that has been on the funding roller coaster for more than a decade.

In a committee report accompanying the funding bill, legislators recommended $200 million for the Los Alamos facility — $100 million below the budget request. While expressing full support for the project and modernization efforts, the committee declined to recommend any funding for early construction.

The building's proximity to a major geological fault line has driven a lengthy redesign process, which in turn has resulted in significant changes and additional costs. These changes have influenced the agency to review the validity of its environmental rationale in a supplemental analysis that is not expected to be finished until later in the year.

Raising these issues, the committee also questioned the current plan to have Los Alamos National Security, the laboratory manager, manage the construction contract.

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a conservative research institute in Albuquerque, hailed the proposed cuts as the beginning of greater fiscal restraint in Washington.

"It seems long overdue," he said. "From the perspective of New Mexico and people who think this might hurt, we're all going to have to pitch in and help restore some national sanity to the budget picture."

Also pleased by the outcome was Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, who viewed the proposed cuts to the Los Alamos facility as a kind of vindication. The study group recently lost a courtroom battle to halt construction on the project. The House recommendation, if sustained, would serve the same purpose through next year.

"The vigilance of the committee is evident not just with CMRR," he said. "Their report explains that they think (the Department of Energy) and the Pentagon aren't taking costs into consideration when they decide what to do early enough in the process. They're making a list of things they think would be nice to do, but that's exactly when we need to be injecting a concern about cost."

The 26-20 committee vote reflected party loyalties, with one Republican joining Democrats in opposing the measure.

"The president was able to win support for the (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) last year only after a bipartisan group of senators were assured that NNSA — and its nuclear deterrent programs — would be adequately funded," U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said Thursday in an email from Washington. "The budget being put together in the House of Representatives unfortunately contemplates deep cuts to those programs."

Bingaman also called attention to a provision in the bill that would cut in half funding for cleaning up nuclear waste at the lab next year and said he hopes the bill could be reworked and improved in coming months.

When the Senate comes up with its own bill, it would have to be reconciled with the House version and signed into law by the president to complete the process.


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