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Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Sandia Mission Comes Into Focus
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
Paul Hommert begins his job as director of Sandia National Laboratories with something his recent predecessors have lacked — clarity about what the nation is asking the Albuquerque-based nuclear weapons design lab to do.
The Obama administration wants overall reductions in nuclear weapons. To accomplish that goal, the administration is pushing for a substantial increase in the money invested to maintain the nuclear weapons that remain. The argument now seems to be how big the increase should be, and whether the increased spending can (or should) be sustained in a time of growing deficits.
For next year's budget, Republicans and Democrats in Congress appear to be in general agreement. Past bickering between the House and Senate about how much to spend on nuclear weapons has for now subsided.
We still don't have final details, but preliminary votes in House and Senate committees suggest the 2011 budget for Sandia and the U.S. nuclear weapons program will rise substantially.
"That really does flow from having a national policy consensus," Hommert told me last week.
You could think of Hommert, who took over the top job July 9, as Sandia's first truly post-Cold War boss. A mechanical engineer by training, he spent the first 15 years of his Sandia career working on energy issues. He didn't join Sandia's nuclear weapons program until 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed.
In the years since, Hommert served as director of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the United Kingdom, that country's nuclear weapons design and manufacturing complex. He also headed Los Alamos National Laboratory's X Division, the center of that lab's applied theoretical physics work, before returning in 2006 to run Sandia's lab site in Livermore, Calif.
That places Hommert's nuclear weapons experience firmly in the "stewardship era." That is the period after the Cold War and the end of nuclear testing, when the program's primary job became maintaining old weapons rather than designing and building new ones, which had been the primary task since the creation of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.
Figuring out how much that job will cost going forward is at the heart of current congressional discussion over nuclear weapons and arms control policy.
For now, the consensus appears to be "more than we're spending now." But exactly how much more remains a subject of debate.
House appropriators, who have played the role of fiscal hawk in recent years, have approved an increase of 8 percent over this year's budget. On the Senate side, the proposed increase is 10 percent.
Some Republicans think the budget needs to rise even more. Members of the arms control community argue that money is really just "nuclear pork" money to buy votes for an arms control treaty with the Russians, which is a top international priority for the Obama administration.
A big part of next year's budget increase will go to Sandia's refurbishment of the B61, a nuclear bomb designed in the 1960s and 1970s and still in the U.S. arsenal. Sitting in his office last week, with a sweeping view of the mountains that share his lab's name, Hommert told me the B61 work will be the largest nuclear weapons project Sandia has done since the 1970s. The administration has requested a $160 million increase in spending next year at Sandia for the work, and long range spending plans call for steady increases beyond that over the next five years.
Much of the discussion about the rising future nuclear weapons budget has focused on two large nuclear materials buildings, one at Los Alamos National Laboratory and one at the Y-12 plant in Tennessee. There are no official cost estimates for the building, but each appears likely to cost upward of $4 billion.
While those projects get most of the attention, the B61 refurbishment has largely been flying under the radar, but its price tag is also significant, at between $1 billion and $2 billion.
Hommert, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 15 in what might be described as his congressional "coming-out party," described a "sense of urgency" around the B61 project because of the bomb's aging components.
Just how far the project, known as the "B61 Life Extension Program," should go remains a matter of debate. Critics suggest changes should be kept to a minimum, to hold down costs and keep the nuclear weapons in the enduring stockpile as close as possible to the original designs developed before testing was ended.
Those kinds of details, for now, have not been the primary topic as Congress discusses the future nuclear weapons budget. That argument seems to be primarily about whether the coming budget increase should be "big" or "even bigger."
Speaking to reporters in Washington last week after a trip that included a stop at Sandia, Rep. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., suggested the program needs an extra $10 billion over the next decade above and beyond the increases already contemplated in the Obama administration's long-term spending plan. Reuters quoted Kyl, speaking last week during a round table with reporters, as saying he expects the cost of the Los Alamos and Oak Ridge buildings to rise.
The fear among weapons program backers is that increases like that won't be sustainable in a time of political concerns about rising federal deficits. The weapons programs critics say the increases shouldn't be sustained, because they are unnecessary.
That is the uncertain terrain Hommert enters as he takes Sandia's helm.
Upfront is a daily front-page opinion column. John Fleck can be reached at 823-3916 or email@example.com.