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White House budget plan a mixed bag for state’s labs, WIPP

By Kevin Avila-robinson And Mark Oswald / Journal Staff Writers
PUBLISHED: Monday, February 2, 2015 at 11:45 pm

LANL aerial photo

Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Sandia National Laboratories would see a minor cut in funding next year while Los Alamos National Laboratory would see a small increase, according to the Obama administration’s proposed fiscal year 2016 budget, released on Monday.

If approved by Congress, Sandia could lose a little less than 1 percent of its funding: The proposal calls for an overall $13 million reduction in funding, from $1.78 billion in FY 2015 to $1.77 billion next year.

Meanwhile, Los Alamos, despite continuing criticism over its responsibility for a radiation leak that shut down the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, would get about $75.3 million more than in the current fiscal year, up to $1.947 billion, an increase of just more than 4 percent.

Nuclear weapons activities at Los Alamos would get an additional $22 million. Money to clean up long-term nuclear and hazardous waste at LANL would remain essentially stagnant, at $185 million.

The mixed bag of funding from the administration’s budget proposal for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s New Mexico sites also calls for $243 million for WIPP, about $77 million less than the nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad will get this year as it works to recover operations.

WIPP has been closed since February 2014 after a radiation leak from a drum packaged at Los Alamos contaminated the deep underground facility.

The NNSA budget request concedes that “it is too early to estimate the total cost of reopening WIPP to once again receive shipments” of waste but the budget “assumes interim restart by the middle of FY 2016.”

NNSA issued a statement Monday saying its proposed budget of $12.6 billion represents an increase of $1.2 billion, or about 10.2 percent, to support priorities including effective stewardship of the nation’s nuclear deterrent and nuclear nonproliferation.

The $8.8 billion proposed for weapons activities, a 7.5 percent increase, “ensures we maintain a ready, modern, and capable nuclear force to address any threats we might face, including threats from cyber-attacks,” said the agency.

At Sandia, spending on nuclear weapons modernization and some related arms programs would drop the most, declining by about $31 million compared with funding this year. Money for scientific research projects, such as advanced computing, would also decline by about $8 million.

Higher spending in some other areas, such as a $20 million increase in nuclear nonproliferation programs, would buffer the overall decline in spending. But Sen. Tom Udall, D—NM, said he’s concerned about the proposed cuts.

“I’m concerned about the small reduction in spending for Sandia after several years of significant increases for the lab, and I’ll be pressing the administration to justify its spending level,” Udall told the Journal . “Similarly, I’m concerned about proposed cuts to some of DOE’s science and nonproliferation programs and have questions about important infrastructure programs that impact New Mexico’s labs.”

The NNSA says the drop in weapons modernization spending reflects progress by Sandia and other labs in extending the life of the B61 nuclear bomb, one of the oldest and most versatile weapons in the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The government is spending upwards of $8 billion on that program, with much of the work in recent years being managed at Sandia.

But the lab has reached some critical milestones in those efforts, leading to a drop in spending at Sandia, said Don Cook, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs. “Sandia has a large commitment for nuclear weapons life extension programs that has gone up and down a bit for years,” Cook said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “It’s down a bit this year because (of progress) in B61 engineering development. It reflects the ebb and flow of passing some key milestones.”

At Los Alamos, a $40 million increase in defense nuclear nonproliferation programs is proposed. But in the conference call, NNSA officials acknowledged that most of the increase for nonproliferation results from switching some programs – such as nuclear counterterrorism and response – from the weapons activity budget category to nonproliferation. Funding for some nonproliferation programs at LANL was eliminated.

NNSA officials insisted that funding for all “core activities” in the nonproliferation area remains intact, other than for cooperative activities with Russia.

Asked for comment on leaving clean-up money for LANL stagnant, the officials said there was no one present from NNSA’s environmental management division that could respond.

Local lab watchdogs criticized the flat clean-up funding and other parts of the budget. Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said that NNSA spending on weapons activities is now higher, adjusted for inflation, than during the Cold War.

Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the jump in spending is “for an agency that the Government Accountability Office has long put on its high-risk list for wasting taxpayers’ money.” He said, “the guilty are being rewarded.”

They also criticized an announcement in the budget to spend $675 million on plans to upgrade a radiological lab facility to handle heavier grades of plutonium and another $1.4 billion to upgrade the lab’s main plutonium facility.

“It’s common knowledge that NNSA’s nuclear weapons programs have a staggering track record of cost overruns, schedule delays and security breaches,” Coghlan said.

Udall said in his statement, “I’m prepared to fight to ensure the labs get the funding they need to continue their important national security and scientific work and to ensure that WIPP has the resources to continue recovery efforts so it can reopen safely and enable cleanup at Los Alamos to be completed.”

Journal staff writer Lauren Villagran contributed to this story.


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