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N.M. labs funding facing ‘uncertainty’

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Energy boss says B61 nuclear bomb work could be delayed further

New Mexico’s national labs face significant questions about funding for the coming year, newly appointed Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told reporters during a visit to Sandia National Laboratories on Tuesday.

“We’re all suffering under a lot of uncertainty on the budgets,” Moniz said at the end of a day of visits to Sandia and Los Alamos labs.

Among the biggest unsettled questions are a proposed budget increase for the labs’ work refurbishing the nation’s B61 nuclear bombs and funding for upgrading the buildings at Los Alamos used to do the research and manufacturing work with plutonium, a radioactive metal used in nuclear bombs.

Both projects are part of major national initiatives, involving commitments made by the Obama administration when the Senate in 2010 approved an arms limitation pact with Russia. But carrying out the commitments has proven financially difficult because of pressures to reduce federal spending.

A former undersecretary of Energy in the Clinton administration and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Moniz took over the top job at the Department of Energy in May. The agency funds and oversees work at Sandia and Los Alamos, which collectively are among New Mexico’s largest employers, with some 10,000 people working at each facility.

With less than a month left in the current fiscal year, Congress has yet to act on its budget for the coming year, creating uncertainty about how much money will be available for critical programs beginning Oct. 1.

It is a common problem. The last time Congress completed an appropriations bill for the labs on time was 1999, according to Library of Congress records. The typical approach, which appears likely this year, is a “continuing resolution” that allows spending at current year levels into the new fiscal year while Congress sorts out its disagreements over the budget.

The open question is whether the administration, as it has in the past, will push to have any continuing resolution approved by Congress make an exception for the nuclear weapons program, allowing the nuclear weapons budget to rise to cover the new work the Department of Energy and Department of Defense have laid out.

Moniz in an interview with the Journal acknowledged that such a move, known in Washington budget parlance as “an anomaly,” was “a potential approach,” but said he could not discuss internal deliberations about whether the administration was committed to pursuing one.

Such a move could be critical to the work on the B61, an aging nuclear bomb that is a mainstay of the U.S. nuclear arsenal intended to deter nuclear-armed countries, such as Russia.

In its Fiscal Year 2014 budget request, the administration asked Congress for $531 million for B61 work, a large portion of which would be done at Sandia and Los Alamos. Members of the House agreed that the project deserved a spending increase, but the Senate was only willing to appropriate $369 million because of concerns about possible cost overruns on the program, with the possibility that the number could rise if the Department of Energy and its lab scientists can justify the additional expense. If the project continued at this year’s spending levels under a continuing resolution, it would get the $369 million.

With congressional consideration of the spending measures now stalled, Moniz acknowledged in the interview that there is a risk that the project’s schedule, already delayed by budget problems, could slip further.

Another major uncertainty, according to Moniz, involves funding for plutonium work at Los Alamos. Much to the consternation of some on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration last year indefinitely delayed work on a new multibillion dollar plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos, a project that had been one of the administration’s commitments when the December 2010 Russian arms deal was signed.

In the year since that decision was made, Los Alamos and its federal managers have been working to come up with an alternative approach involving use of existing buildings, along with construction of some smaller new facilities, to support current and future manufacturing of a limited number of plutonium cores for U.S. nuclear weapons.

Moniz said he is “full supportive of pursuing the so-called ‘modular strategy,’ ” but acknowledged that his agency still has failed to persuade key members of Congress to support spending shifts in the Department of Energy’s budget that are needed for the work to proceed.

“We’re still working that,” he said.