SANTA FE, N.M. — A House-Senate conference committee is pushing back against the Obama administration’s decision to indefinitely delay work on a Los Alamos plutonium laboratory.
The fiscal year 2013 Defense Authorization bill, completed this week and now awaiting final congressional approval, attempts to force the National Nuclear Security Administration to keep the moribund Los Alamos National Laboratory project on life support in the coming year. The bill allocates $70 million for the work and demands the agency commit to a plan to have the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility completed by the end of 2026.
In February, the Obama administration submitted a budget request to Congress calling for an indefinite delay in the multibillion dollar project, where plutonium science in support of maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons would be done. In a September letter to the administration, Senate Armed Services committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., complained that the deferral amounted to a de-facto decision to cancel the project. The final House-Senate language is an attempt by Levin and his allies to reverse that decision.
The bill’s effect in the 2012-13 fiscal year, which began in 2012, is unclear. It comes amid fierce debate in Washington over the 2012-13 budget, with no completed appropriations bills specifying how much federal agencies are legally allowed to spend. Officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration, which will have to figure out what to do amid conflicting congressional signals about the project, did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
The committee action is the latest development in a conflict over the last year between federal bean counters concerned about the project’s rising costs and some members of the national security establishment arguing that the project is needed to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
In 2007, federal officials said they thought they had a handle on the plutonium project, which they estimated would cost $800 million to build and be done by 2014. By 2010, the price had risen to an estimated $3.7 billion to $5.7 billion, with its estimated completion pushed out to the 2020s.
National Nuclear Security Administration officials repeatedly said they would prefer to build the CMRR-NF, but couldn’t afford those rising costs alongside other nuclear work being done, including refurbishing aging B61 nuclear bombs and building a similar facility for uranium work in Tennessee.
The argument spilled over into Congress this year. Appropriations committees, which allocate the dollars, supported the administration’s decision to indefinitely defer the work. This week’s bill comes from the Armed Services committees, which set defense policy. They disagreed with the budgeters, saying the project was still needed and the NNSA simply has to find a way to pay for it.
But the Armed Services bill does give a nod to concerns about the project’s rising costs, saying the NNSA has to find a way to build it for $3.7 billion, the low end of the project’s estimated cost. The Armed Services committees also enlist the Pentagon’s Naval Facilities Engineering Command to help manage the project in an effort to get its management problems under control.
Project critics noted that the bill does not say how, in the long run, the federal government will come up with the money to build the project.
“The main question this bill does not answer is ‘Where will the money come from?'” said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque group that has sued to try to block the plutonium laboratory’s construction.
“If new funds are forthcoming, they must come from other security programs, non-military discretionary spending, mandatory spending, new taxes, or new debt.”