WASHINGTON – Sen. Martin Heinrich sought assurances Thursday from the Department of Energy about waste cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory and warned his Senate colleagues that planned reductions in nuclear weapons wouldn’t necessarily mean big savings for taxpayers.
The New Mexico Democrat, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, made the remarks at a committee hearing to examine the budget of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Daniel Poneman, the department’s deputy secretary, told Heinrich the Energy Department is committed to cleaning up radioactive and other wastes at LANL as required under a binding agreement with the state.
“We are firmly committed to meeting our objectives,” Poneman said, noting that final spending amounts for LANL cleanup could fluctuate as Congress grapples with the effects of the sequester, or broad budget cuts that went into effect in March as part of debt reduction deal Congress reached in 2011.
The Obama administration’s proposed federal budget unveiled last week included a $31.8 million increase for cleanup of radioactive and other wastes at LANL. Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., have asked for more, but there is no guarantee Congress will go along.
For the 2014 fiscal year, Obama has requested $219.8 million for “defense environmental cleanup” at LANL, including about $4 million for administration. That’s up from $188 million in the current budget year.
On a separate issue, Heinrich stressed Thursday that reductions in nuclear warheads planned as part of the U.S.-Russia New START Treaty will not necessarily mean sharp reductions at Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories. Funding for New Mexico’s nuclear labs has become a top-tier agenda item for the state’s congressional delegation in light of the nation’s dire federal budget outlook.
“The relationship between reducing those numbers (of weapons) and the cost savings they may or may not incur is not all linear,” Heinrich said. “As long as we have one nuclear weapon, we’ll need the infrastructure.”
Heinrich said America’s decision not to test nuclear weapons, which he called “good policy,” means the stockpile must be evaluated with expensive computers.
“It’s more expensive to have supercomputers to make sure (nuclear weapons) remain safe, secure and reliable,” Heinrich said. “It (planned warhead reductions) won’t necessarily create an enormous savings to be able to spend on other priorities.”
The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee is expected to begin work on the fiscal year 2014 nuclear weapons budget next week.
— This article appeared on page C2 of the Albuquerque Journal