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Sandia Labs may get $300 million budget increase

Sandia National Laboratories (Journal file)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Sandia National Laboratories would receive a $300 million increase in federal funding under President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget.

Most of the increase involves the labs’ nuclear weapons program, Sandia officials told the Journal.

“It’s got to go through a lot of the legislative process,” Laboratories Director James Peery said. “There will be lots of committee hearings. We’ll just have to see how it plays out.”

Congress will have to approve the appropriations before the budget advances to the president’s desk. The labs received $3.76 billion in the fiscal 2020 budget.

Increasing the labs’ nuclear weapons funding falls in line with recent trends. Deputy Labs Director Dori Ellis said Sandia’s nuclear weapons program is the largest it’s been in three decades.

And the labs’ hiring plans for the year reflect that. Ellis said most of the 200 positions Sandia plans to add this year will involve the weapons program.

“Those would be electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, computer science” jobs, she said.

While Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California work on the nuclear explosion systems, Sandia works on the non-nuclear components of the weapons systems, including electrical, firing and fuzing components, as well as the safety and security systems. Sandia would receive a 23% increase in National Nuclear Security Administration funding for total weapons activities.

All would not be good news under the proposed budget. Cuts for the Department of Energy have been proposed, especially in areas involving nuclear contamination cleanup.

Cuts for Sandia would be in the applied energy area, involving fossil and solar energy development. The cuts represent only a small portion of Sandia’s overall budget, Ellis said.

“We don’t have a particularly big cleanup budget,” she said. “Sandia was not one of the sites that really had the most serious problems.”

That is not the case with Los Alamos. The northern New Mexico laboratory’s funding for the cleanup of radioactive waste it produced during the Manhattan Project and Cold War would decrease by $100 million.

“We’re watching with some concern about where it (the budget) is going,” Ellis said. “Right now, we’re pretty well funded for another year, even with the proposed cuts.”

She said cuts were proposed for programs the past three years but did not actually occur in congressional approved budgets.

Even with the labs being well funded for the next year, employment growth will be modest compared with previous years. Sandia added 1,100 jobs last year, to bring employment up to more than 14,000 – 12,300 in New Mexico.

A reason for the limited growth this year, Peery and Ellis said, is that Sandia’s facilities are at 96% capacity.

“If we were asked to do some other thing really large, we would have to have the government’s help,” Peery said. “We would have to find some lease space somewhere.”

But there are plans to expand, they said.

“We are building two buildings right now, each of which will hold … 150 to 200 people,” Ellis said. “We have a building plan over the next five years or so. That would allow us to bring a number of our leased facilities back to the laboratory. Much really depends upon the budget.”

“Ideally, we’d like to be at 90% so we’d have room to move people where they need to go,” she said.

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