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Defense funding bill protects Los Alamos

Sen. Tom Udall

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s two U.S. senators have successfully added an amendment to a major defense funding bill to help protect Los Alamos National Laboratory’s role as the nation’s producer of plutonium pits, the triggers for nuclear weapons.

The possibility of moving pit-making to another weapons complex site was first raised at a meeting of a nuclear safety board in June in Santa Fe.

As the Journal reported then, an official with the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration said a study was underway to determine if meeting pit-production goals for a huge weapons modernization plan could be best met at Los Alamos or by adding “capabilities” elsewhere. Loss of the pit-making job – none have been made since 2011, but LANL is ordered to make up to 80 per year by 2030 – would cost Los Alamos millions, and possibly billions, of dollars worth of work.

No findings from the study have been released, and no one has proposed moving pit production. But Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrats, made a pre-emptive strike with an amendment to the defense authorization bill passed by the Senate on Thursday and which now awaits the president’s signature.

It requires the Trump administration to meet certain requirements to justify moving pit manufacturing from Los Alamos, including certification by the Secretary of Defense and review by the Nuclear Weapons Council. If no decision is made within 150 days of Trump signing the defense funding bill, the pit work stays in Los Alamos using planned, new underground “modules.”

The two senators didn’t address their amendment in comments released about the defense bill. Heinrich said he will continue to ensure “our installations in New Mexico have strong, sustainable national security missions for years to come.”

Critics maintain there’s no need for new pits with thousands currently in storage. Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group said the senators “see only dollar signs involved.”

“Rebuilding even a small version of the Rocky Flats Plant (which formerly made pits in Colorado) near Santa Fe will have very serious consequences for the region and the country as a whole,” he said.

LANL has been under attack for safety lapses. In 2016, it was the only one of the DOE’s nuclear facilities to receive a failing safety rating in the area of “criticality,” or prevention of uncontrolled nuclear chain reactions, although no such accidents have taken place.

In all, the defense bill includes more than $14 billion for the National Nuclear Security Agency, an increase of nearly $1 billion over the last fiscal year. The funds support weapons work and environmental cleanup at LANL, Sandia National Laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.

Another Udall-Heinrich amendment supports the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent panel that oversees the labs. The measure requires board members to report to Congress each year about whether the White House’s budget request for the board is enough to fund reviews deemed necessary to ensure safe operations at DOE sites. Supporters say the board’s role is critical given safety issues at LANL and the planned uptick in nuclear weapons work.

The bill also authorizes spending for projects at New Mexico bases, including $50 million at Cannon Air Force Base, $4.2 million for Holloman and more than $9 million for Kirtland Air Force Base.