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Key Republicans Back Lab’s Funding Cut

SANTA FE, N.M. — A key group of House Republicans this week signaled their support for the Obama administration’s decision to eliminate funding for a multibillion dollar new plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos, suggesting the possibility of bipartisan agreement on the controversial move.

Some Republicans in Congress have objected loudly to the administration’s decision to indefinitely defer work on the project. But the committee with jurisdiction over the nuclear weapons budget, in a spending plan made public this week, endorsed the administration’s proposal.

In a report made public late Tuesday, the Republican-controlled House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee agreed with the Obama administration’s conclusion that there is currently no need for the multibillion dollar Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility.

The building would have housed laboratory space for work on plutonium, a key component in U.S. nuclear weapons.

The subcommittee’s Senate Democratic counterparts last week agreed to zero out the project. Both bills must win full House and Senate support, but changes from appropriations subcommittee spending plans are relatively rare.

Despite killing funding for the Los Alamos plutonium project, the House spending plan would increase nuclear weapons spending 4 percent, to $7.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2013, which begins Oct. 1. Early estimates suggest that in New Mexico, Sandia National Laboratories would reap the most benefits from new spending, while Los Alamos would see its budget decline.

In response to the shifting budgets, Los Alamos has already cut 557 jobs from its 10,000-person work force this year with voluntary buyouts, and lab officials said this week approximately 60 temporary workers will be cut by the end of April.

Agreement from the key congressional spending committees suggests bipartisan support for the proposal to halt work on the plutonium lab, said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based activist group that sued to try to halt the project.

“That signifies a broad consensus among the serious players on national security in Congress,” Mello said.

But the plutonium lab, on which the government has already spent $450 million for design work, continues to have support from some Congressional Republicans.

In an April 17 hearing, Rep. Michael Turner, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, battered administration representatives over their decision to cut funding for the Los Alamos project.

Turner, an Ohio Republican, grilled National Nuclear Security Administration chief Tom D’Agostino on the contradiction between past testimony in which he had told Congress the Los Alamos plutonium building was vital to national security, and his testimony this year that the project should be indefinitely delayed.

“Who are we to believe,” Turner asked, “you from today, or you from four years ago?”

Turner could not be reached Wednesday for comment on his plans in the wake of his House Republican colleagues’ decision to support the administration proposal to cut funding for the project.