LANL awaits pit production announcement

No doubt Los Alamos National Laboratory officials are anxiously anticipating May 11.

That’s when Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the newly confirmed administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, is set to deliver a report to Congress revealing the agency’s plans for the future of plutonium pit production at Los Alamos and/or possibly elsewhere.

Gordon-Hagerty told Congress at a hearing last month that the manufacture of plutonium pits – traditionally the job of Los Alamos National Laboratory – would be her “No. 1 priority” in modernizing the NNSA infrastructure. Plutonium pits, about the size of a softball, are the fission cores that trigger a nuclear bomb. In part because of safety lapses, LANL hasn’t produced any since 2011.

In December, an NNSA study suggested the agency’s 80-pits-a-year goal could be reached faster and cheaper at Savannah River in South Carolina instead of at Los Alamos. You could practically hear the collective shudder within the LANL organization and the state’s congressional delegation. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, told Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday he was concerned that final report due May 11 won’t give adequate consideration to Los Alamos. He also said if the NNSA is going to meet its goal of 30 new pits by 2026 and 80 by 2030 it doesn’t have time to dilly-dally with new plans.

“If we’re going to hit those time targets there is not a path through South Carolina that hits those targets,” Heinrich told Perry.

Perry didn’t give Heinrich any assurances except to say LANL will be given full consideration in whatever recommendation is made May 11. Afterward, I asked Heinrich to describe his level of worry that Los Alamos could lose its status as the nation’s primary plutonium pit producer.

“I don’t think there’s another place that can do it as well, so we’re taking it very seriously,” he said.

• • •

With a potentially brutal wildfire season on the horizon in New Mexico this year, Sen. Tom Udall’s office tells me he has brokered a breakthrough compromise on the way Congress foots the tab for battling the blazes.

The new agreement – contained in the massive spending bill President Donald Trump signed into law Friday – ends the practice of “fire borrowing” in which the Forest Service and Interior Department are forced to take money from non-fire budgets, including prevention, to pay for fire suppression. It’s a problem the federal government has been wrestling with for years, and it’s only gotten worse as climate change has made fire seasons longer and more intense.

The bill signed into law Friday contains almost $2 billion for federal firefighting in 2018, about a half-billion more than the 10-year average. Beginning in 2020, it also boosts the funding cap for fighting fires – starting at $2.25 billion in FY 2020 and rising to $2.95 billion in FY 2027.

Udall said wildfires are natural disasters as much as hurricanes and should be treated as such.

“This agreement provides certainty so that when a community faces a major wildfire disaster, we’ll have the funds to fight it,” he said.

• • •

A name that may be familiar to some New Mexicans who followed the work of former Sen. Jeff Bingaman has resurfaced in the state in a very important role.

Bernie Toon, who served as Bingaman’s chief-of-staff, has joined Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s administration as transit director with a chief responsibility for untangling the mess known as ART, or Albuquerque Rapid Transit. A 30-year Capitol Hill veteran who also worked as chief of staff for former Sens. Joe Biden and Bill Bradley, Toon has a deep well of experience in the transit sector, having worked extensively on Amtrak and Port Authority issues for those East Coast senators.

After leaving Bingaman’s office in 2013, Toon went to work for the Bechtel Corp., where he was head of federal government relations. In that role, Toon helped with the planning and funding of the extension of the Washington Metro subway’s silver line from D.C. to Dulles International Airport.

In my experience, Toon is an open, accessible and deeply knowledgeable public servant. Toon tells me he plans to jump right into the job and will be riding the buses and meeting with commuters on platforms during rush hour to help understand what he needs to do to improve the service. If you see him around town, please join me in wishing Bernie the best in his new job.

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