By Michael Coleman and John Fleck
WASHINGTON – Sen. Tom Udall sought but did not receive assurances about the future of plutonium work at Los Alamos National Laboratory on Wednesday while a Senate appropriations leader assailed the White House budget for nuclear weapons.
The developments came during a Senate subcommittee hearing to examine President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories in New Mexico.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the energy and water panel of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, sharply criticized the White House’s overall nuclear weapons budget and plans to modernize the stockpile.
The White House’s NNSA 2014 budget request asks Congress for $7.89 billion for nuclear weapons activities in fiscal year 2014, up from $7.56 billion this year. By 2018, the proposed weapons activities budget would rise to $9.29 billion, according to the budget request.
At Los Alamos, overall spending by the NNSA and other programs within the Department of Energy would rise from $1.83 billion this year to $1.96 billion in 2014, a 7 percent increase.
Feinstein, a long-standing critic of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, suggested that weapons advocates could be in for a long fiscal fight.
“I’m of the school that we don’t need all these nuclear weapons,” Feinstein said. Obama also has said he wants to reduce the number of warheads in the nation’s nuclear stockpile.
Feinstein said she was especially disappointed to see money for nonproliferation work redirected to work on nuclear bombs.
“Despite these significant increases, I am very concerned that the scope of the work proposed is unsustainable and unrealistic,” Feinstein said. “Given sequestration and shrinking budgets and NNSA’s long history of cost overruns and schedule delays, I don’t see how it can successfully execute this mission.”
Udall asked Neile L. Miller, the NNSA’s acting secretary, to explain what the agency planned to do about plutonium work at LANL after last year’s announcement that it was stopping work on a multibillion-dollar plutonium lab at Los Alamos.
“NNSA for over a year has failed to present a full plan for how to deal with the deferral of the CMRR (Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility),” said Udall, a New Mexico Democrat and a member of the Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee that hosted Wednesday’s hearing.
“The interim plan has more questions than answers,” Udall said.
In a letter this month to the House Armed Services Committee, NNSA and Pentagon officials laid out details of a new alternative approach to plutonium work at Los Alamos. In the year since the NNSA said it was stopping work on the plutonium lab, Los Alamos and NNSA have been developing an alternative approach intended to maintain the ability in the long term to manufacture 50 to 80 new plutonium “pits” for future use in the nuclear arsenal, the letter said.
Scrapping the LANL plutonium lab “provides an opportunity to reassess the future of plutonium activities at Los Alamos,” the April 8 letter to the House Armed Services Committee said.
The plan now under study would involve a series of smaller buildings, linked by a network of secure tunnels at the Los Alamos plutonium site, each dedicated to a narrow task. In addition to replacing the work that was to be done in the CMRR-NF, the new plan would allow the lab to move high-risk activities out of the lab’s Plutonium Facility, a concrete blockhouse built in the 1970s that suffers from significant seismic risk.
Donald Cook, the NNSA’s deputy director of defense programs, said the strategy “is promising because we can get some of the earlier capabilities at less initial cost.”
“We think we can come up with a more clever path, one that will get us to the place we need to be with plutonium research and plutonium manufacturing,” he added.
Miller told Udall the delay in presenting a concrete plan reflects prudence on the part of NNSA, not lack of interest.
“What’s important here is not to just hitch onto the next thing only to find that, too, is unsustainable and unjustified,” she said. “What we are committed to at this point is addressing the needs in the best possible way.”
After the hearing, Udall told the Journal he wasn’t satisfied with the NNSA officials’ explanation.
“We were trying to flesh this out a little bit, and I don’t know that we got very far,” he said.
Michael Coleman reported from Washington. John Fleck reported from Albuquerque.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal