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WASHINGTON – On a bright, brisk morning last February, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu stepped to a podium to outline his agency’s multi-billion dollar budget request for 2013.
Chu’s list included mostly predictable priorities – until he got to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons budget. Then, he dropped a bomb.
The energy secretary announced that, after a decade of planning and $600 million in preparatory spending, DOE would halt work on a state-of-the art plutonium project at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The project – formally known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility – was expected to modernize the aging LANL weapons complex and inject new vitality into a nuclear mission launched during World War II.
With the retirement of Senate lions Pete Domenici in 2008 and Jeff Bingaman at the end of this year, it’s unclear how much clout New Mexico’s relatively junior congressional delegation will have in the coming debate and in their efforts to secure federal funding for New Mexico’s two national laboratories.
DOE’s decision to delay the project for at least five years – coupled with President Obama’s stated intention of reducing the nuclear stockpile – has triggered fierce congressional debate about the need for multi-billion dollar nuclear programs in a post-Cold War era.
Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, is among those leading the charge in Congress against spending increases on nuclear weapons, calling the appropriations “insane.”
“In these difficult economic times, it makes no sense to continue housing these Cold War-era radioactive relics while Americans struggle to afford housing for their families,” Markey said in a House floor speech two days after Chu’s CMRR announcement.
Administration officials disagree with Markey’s argument. While acknowledging the CMRR decision was a consequence of tight budgets, they note that the nuclear weapons budget as a whole continues to rise.
In the weeks and months since Markey’s salvo, weapons advocates in Congress have pushed back. Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, told the Journal last week that he will keep fighting for inclusion of CMRR money in the budget. The country needs it, he insisted.
“This is essential,” Turner said. “It goes to the heart of our national security and the heart of our nuclear weapons programs. The president needs to find cost reductions elsewhere.”
New Mexico’s congressional delegation – dominated by Democrats – lamented the decision to scrap CMRR, but seems powerless, at least so far, to do anything about it. None of the five members sits on appropriations committees that determine congressional spending.
Meanwhile, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee received billions for a Uranium Processing Center in this year’s budget request, a DOE decision widely viewed as coming at the expense of CMRR at Los Alamos. Some saw the decision as barometer of New Mexico’s congressional clout.
“Oak Ridge is not talking about cuts; Oak Ridge is talking about gains,” said former Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who funneled billions of dollars to LANL and Sandia during his career as chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. “Tennessee got their interests satisfied and New Mexico didn’t.”
If Domenici, who retired in 2008, were still in office, he probably wouldn’t wield the same power over lab spending in Washington as he did even five years ago. Earmarks, which allowed members to insert spending line items into appropriations bills, have been abolished. The now-defunct appropriations tool was critical to Domenici’s ability to nurture big budgets at New Mexico’s labs.
Domenici said he didn’t want to armchair quarterback the current delegation, but warned that someone should take the lead in making sure New Mexico’s laboratories are protected in Washington.
“Somebody ought to be working on this,” Domenici said. “We certainly ought to try to maintain programs that are currently scheduled (at LANL and Sandia) and not let this happen again like it did with CMRR.”
Rep. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, is now running for the U.S. Senate seat that Bingaman will retire from at the end of the year. Heinrich insists he is the best candidate to protect the labs, citing proposed budget increases for Sandia National Laboratory as evidence of his work on the Armed Services Committee.
Former Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican who is challenging Heinrich for the Senate, disputes his claim. Wilson has accused the current congressional delegation of neglecting the labs and claims she will do better. The issue of lab spending is likely to be a marquee issue in that campaign.
Bingaman, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the loss of CMRR was about much more than congressional clout. He said a runaway national debt, coupled with ballooning costs for the project, made it vulnerable to an Obama Administration looking for ways to control spending.
When the National Nuclear Security Administration first asked Congress in 2003 for budget authority to build the replacement building, the agency estimated the cost at $500 million and said it would be completed by 2011. Current estimates put the cost at $4 billion to $6 billion, with the project more than a decade behind schedule.
DOE Secretary Chu and Thomas D’Agostino, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, sat in Bingaman’s Washington office shortly after the CMRR announcement and assured him and other members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation that Los Alamos would remain a robust part of the nation’s nuclear weapons enterprise, especially with respect to plutonium work. But CMRR just didn’t fit into their current budget, Bingaman said.
“CMRR started with a price tag of less than a billion dollars but by the time it was put on hold the estimate was closer to six billion dollars,” Bingaman said. “They need to build whatever facilities are required to keep the plutonium at LANL, but I think there is a way to do that without spending six billion dollars.
“They said they are working to determine what the next proposal is, in light of their decision to put off construction of CMRR,” Bingaman added, hopefully.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he remains optimistic CMRR will be built. He said the facilities at Los Alamos are decrepit and need to be upgraded.
“I worry for the scientists who are working there now,” Udall said. “They need a new facility. There is no doubt about it. Otherwise, we’re just going to acknowledge that Los Alamos isn’t going to be a leader in that particular area anymore. I’m not willing to do that.”
Udall said the best way to ensure success of the labs – especially Los Alamos – in a no-earmark environment is for the “delegation to hang together on this and push for Los Alamos to be a premier facility.”
Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based activist organization that closely monitors and is mostly critical of the lab’s’ work, said the nuclear weapons mission is outdated.
“Considerable disarmament is now inevitable – the question is when, what and how,” Mello said, citing warhead reduction provisions in the New START Treaty. “The stockpile stewardship program will continue as long as there are nuclear weapons, but the scale of the work and the diversity of the work need to be nowhere near the present scale.”