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Los Alamos lab would get $2.1 billion in proposed budget; officials discuss plans for making plutonium `pits’

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Obama adminstration’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget for the Department of Energy, released Tuesday, allocates $2.1 billion for Los Alamos National Laboratory.

That’s down from $2.2 billion that the new budget document says was “enacted” for the current fiscal year but up from $1.9 billion in Department of Energy funding that was included in the administration’s request for last year.

Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the new documents show an additional $200 million was added to the lab’s nuclear weapons program during FY 2016.

The budget, released Tuesday, also calls for $189 million for clean up of decades-worth of radioactive and hazardous materials at LANL, about the same as in recent years.

LANL is under a directive to resume production of plutonium “pits,” the triggers for nuclear weapons, as part of changes and upgrades to the nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile.

Previous DOE documents have indicated that plans to add to new underground “modules” at Los Alamos for the plutonium work were planned, for a cost estimated at a whopping $2 billion or more.

The new budget request doesn’t advance the “module” idea, leaving the plans for pit production facilities open to interpretation. The budget request says that the “remaining mission need” can be met with other alternatives.

“A common interpretation from all this is that the administration has more time to think about it,” said Greg Mello of the anti-nuclear Los Alamos Study Group. “We think it’s great they should take the time to think more clearly… before plunking capital asset money on the table.”

LANL’s Radiological, Utility, and Office Building is now projected to be a $1.44 billion building. DOE recently endorsed plans to expand RLOUB’s plutonium handling capacity by more than 10 times to 400 grams, apparently as part of the pit production plan. Critics say the building was not built as a nuclear facility.

During a press briefing today (Wednesday, Feb. 10), a Journal reporter asked officials of the National Nuclear Security Administration about potential pit production facilities.

Brig. Gen. S.L. Davis, acting deputy administrator for defense programs, said, “Under the current capabilities we have in the projects we have going, we’re going to be able to do ten pits in 2024, 20 pits in 2025, and 30 pits in 2026.

“To get to the 50-80 pits dictated by statute we’d have to do additional construction. In the current budget, we have some money for design of a plutonium capability. We’re currently undergoing an analysis of alternatives to see if that would be, in fact, plutonium modules at Los Alamos or perhaps some other alternatives, but at this point there is no money for funding of the major construction item to do that in the current budget.”

NNSA administrator Frank Klotz, said that to make sure the agency has the capacity for plutonium operations, “we are undergoing several projects basically to move things out of the old chemical and metallurgy facility building by repurposing space” in the building known as Plutionium Facility-4 in and in RLUOB.

“We have some significant funding going to subprojects associated with that,” said Klotz. He said that in the fiscal year 2017 budget, there’s about $6 million “which will be used for the development of the conceptual design for an analysis alternatives for the additional capacity we need at Los Alamos to do pit manufacturing.”

“In the out years, we have put in $12 million per year for the plutonium modular approach,” Klotz said. “We recognize that is not nearly enough money to do that. However, until we go through the analysis alternatives and until we do our internal and external independent cost estimations and all of the environmental assessments and all the other things that needs to be done before we can come up with a realistic estimate in terms of what that we’ll be.

“We’ll be back in the FY 18 or 19 budget when we have done all that due diligence and have better figures for that.”

Nuke Watch’s Coghlan said of the overall DOE budget, with $9.3 billion for the weapons activities within the National Nuclear Security Administration: “Recall that President Obama received the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Instead, the last budget of his administrations sets an all time record for funding Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs. What this means at Los Alamos is that the Lab’s future is being increasingly tied to expanded production of plutonium pits, the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons.”

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