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Nuclear boss notes security challenges facing U.S.

SANTA FE, N.M. — The head of the U.S. agency that maintains the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal said Tuesday that the country is facing the most complex and demanding global security environment since the Cold War.

National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty outlined the challenges while speaking to hundreds of people gathered for a small-business expo in New Mexico.

She said Russia and China are investing significant resources to upgrade and expand their nuclear capabilities, while trying to undermine U.S. alliances around the world. North Korea's intentions remain unclear, and in the Middle East, Iran is enriching uranium and has increased its nuclear stockpile beyond limits set by a 2015 accord that President Donald Trump backed out of.

“Amid this increasing international turmoil, the effectiveness and credibility of our nuclear deterrent reassures our friends and our allies and serves as the ultimate insurance policy against a nuclear attack, deterring those who would wish to harm us,” she said.

The visit was the latest by Gordon-Hagerty to New Mexico as her agency faces pressure to resume the production of plutonium pits, which are key components of nuclear weapons. The work is being split between Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Federal officials have set a deadline of 2030 for ramped-up production, but critics have questioned whether that can be met.

The mission of producing the pits has been based at Los Alamos – birthplace of the atomic bomb – for years, but no pits have been manufactured since 2011, after the lab was dogged by safety lapses.

New Mexico also is home to Sandia National Laboratories, another federal installation that has played a key role in the nation's nuclear weapons program and international nonproliferation efforts to keep nuclear or radioactive material from falling into the wrong hands.

Both Los Alamos and Sandia labs will receive budget increases, particularly for nuclear weapons work.

Gordon-Hagerty didn't mention plutonium pit production specifically, but rather talked generally about her agency's mission, saying billions of dollars are funneled annually to small businesses that supply goods and services to the NNSA and its parent agency, the U.S. Energy Department.

Small businesses have played a role in national security for decades, she said, pointing to a mill in West Virginia that supplied parachute cloth for the U.S. Army's airborne divisions and a Wisconsin company that made batteries for walkie-talkies during World War II.

In fiscal 2018, the Energy Department awarded more than $7 billion in contracts to small businesses across 50 states. Gordon-Hagerty said more than $400 million has gone to small businesses in New Mexico, more than any other state.

State officials and members of New Mexico's congressional delegation recently touted reports that highlighted the effects of the Sandia and Los Alamos labs on the state's economy. The labs each contributed about $3 billion.

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