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Panel OKs funds for B61 nukes

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved $369 million for the B61 nuclear bomb life-extension work at Sandia and Los Alamos National laboratories and elsewhere, with the potential to draw an extra $168 million if the project proves to be on time and on budget.

Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who sits on the committee, told the Journal the budget agreement represents a victory for New Mexico’s labs because the panel’s energy and water subcommittee, which oversees national lab budgets, had recommended a flat $369 million line item for the program.

Udall said he pressed this week for the additional $168 million, which was suggested in President Barack Obama’s budget request, and threatened to vote against the entire energy and water appropriations bill if it was not included.

The additional $168 million will be contingent on B61 project managers meeting certain cost and schedule requirements. Under the Senate bill, that money could not be released unless the secretaries of energy and defense certify the benchmarks have been met.

The funding agreement, reached behind closed doors in Washington on Wednesday night, allowed both B61 supporters and skeptics to claim victory.

“This (Senate) bill is very good news,” Udall told the Journal. “I was prepared to vote ‘no’ on the overall bill if we couldn’t find a solution. It seemed to me that this program was too important to New Mexico to not make a significant fight for. The B61 is an important project for the nation and the national labs.”

The B61 bomb is versatile, carried aboard Air Force planes for a variety of missions. Its most noteworthy role is a stockpile based in Europe as part of NATO’s strategic counter to Russian nuclear and conventional forces. Officials say the bombs, built in the 1960s and ’70s, need refurbishment to extend their useful life.

The B61 life-extension work is one of the largest programs for the Sandia and Los Alamos labs.

In its report on the energy and water bill, the committee said it was “concerned that NNSA’s proposed scope of work for extending the life of the B61 bomb is not the lowest-cost, lowest-risk option that meets military requirements and replaces aging components before they affect weapon performance.”

The appropriations bill still needs full Senate approval. Meanwhile, the current House budget request for the B61 in the 2014 fiscal year – $560 million – exceeds even Obama’s $537 million proposal.

Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said the Senate committee’s decision to set B61 funding lower than Obama’s request – at least unless cost and schedule benchmarks are met – was a “victory for good governance.”

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