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Setting A Course For N.M.’s Labs

Continued work on Los Alamos National Laboratory's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project, the first phase of which is shown here, is critical to Los Alamos, according to the candidates running for the state's U.S. Senate seat. (Courtesy Of Sandia National Laboratories)
Continued work on Los Alamos National Laboratory's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project, the first phase of which is shown here, is critical to Los Alamos, according to the candidates running for the state's U.S. Senate seat. (Courtesy Of Sandia National Laboratories)
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ELECTION 2012: THE ISSUES

First in a SeriesInterviews with New Mexico Congressional Candidates on key issues.

Today: U.S. Senate

Nuclear weaponry is big business in New Mexico.

More than 20,000 people work at Sandia and Los Alamos labs, two of the nation’s three nuclear weapon design and maintenance research centers, and the companies and government offices that support their work.

With budgets totaling $4.6 billion per year in taxpayer funding, the two labs are an economic force that cannot be ignored by members of the state’s congressional delegation. And while efforts to diversify the labs’ missions have waxed and waned over the years, nuclear weapons work remains the core of their mission and the largest single part of their budgets.

Candidates on the campaign trail this summer say much of the questioning they get on lab issues involves money and jobs in the uncertain federal budget environment of the coming year. But the people hoping to represent New Mexico in the United States Congress also face important questions of national security policy that will have a major effect on the labs’ future.

How to deal with costs overruns on Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement building and the Obama administration’s resulting decision to indefinitely defer the project are at the top of the agenda.

The proposed plutonium laboratory building’s estimated cost had risen six-fold, to an estimated $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion when the administration pulled the plug in February. The lab and its federal overseers at the National Nuclear Security Administration have been scrambling to develop an alternative plan for doing the nuclear weapons work that was to be done in the lab.

A second major lab-related program, the proposed refurbishment of the B61 nuclear bomb, also faces questions about cost overruns after members of Congress revealed in July the estimated price tag for the effort has doubled, from $4 billion to $8 billion. Along with the CMRR and other projects around the country that face similar problems, the plague of cost overruns will confront Congress as it juggles efforts to fund the nuclear weapons program in a climate of fiscal austerity.

Underlying the discussion are questions about the size and future missions of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, including the possibility of further reductions in the number of bombs and warheads deployed.

In a speech in Prague during the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama pledged to work toward “a world without nuclear weapons,” while acknowledging that it was a distant goal: “I’m not naive,” Obama said. “This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime.”

Obama followed that up with the New START treaty with Russia, reducing the U.S. stockpile of 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons, and the administration is now reportedly looking at options that might cut the stockpile further, to something in the neighborhood of 1,000 deployed weapons.

That raises questions about workload at the nuclear weapons labs, and specifically about the timing and need for additional refurbishment of aging nuclear weapons, which makes up a large part of the current weapons workload.

Because of the labs’ importance to New Mexico’s economy, members of the state’s congressional delegation have long played a disproportionately large role in the underlying U.S. nuclear policy issues that determine the labs’ fates. But with the 2009 retirement of Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s decision not to run for re-election this year, the state faces a precipitous loss of the seniority that the winners of November’s election must confront as they try to guide lab policy in 2013 and beyond.

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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