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Multibillion Los Alamos Project Threatened

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Budget reality could come crashing down Monday on Los Alamos National Laboratory and the most expensive construction project in New Mexico history.

Faced with risings costs for two proposed multibillion-dollar nuclear weapons-related projects, one in Tennessee and the second at Los Alamos, the National Nuclear Security Administration may be forced to choose. President Obama’s administration, set to release its proposed fiscal year 2013 budget Monday, is widely expected to send the money to Tennessee.

In its effort to win support in 2010 for an arms control deal with the Russians, the Obama administration pledged to build both the Uranium Processing Facility, or UPF, in Tennessee and the Los Alamos Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement, or CMRR.

The Los Alamos project would provide laboratory space for scientists to analyze samples of plutonium and other radioactive materials used in nuclear weapons. It would replace the lab’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research lab, which was built 60 years ago and does not meet modern earthquake safety standards.

The projects were needed, the administration argued, to maintain the remaining nuclear weapons in a shrinking U.S. nuclear arsenal. But last year’s Budget Control Act, signed as part of the showdown over the nation’s debt ceiling, has left the promise in doubt.

“There’s widespread belief that it’s going to be very difficult to do the two major construction projects on the schedule that people want to do it,” said Linton Brooks, who headed the NNSA during the Bush administration.

“It’s just bumping against budget reality that CMRR and UPF are having a hard time coexisting, and something’s got to give,” said Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.

NNSA and Los Alamos officials declined comment, saying they would not speak about the issue before the White House releases its budget request.

It is widely expected the Tennessee project will get the nod, with funding for work on the Los Alamos building either cut or eliminated. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said as much in a statement Wednesday, in which he pre-emptively promised legislation to try to force full funding for both projects based on a fear the president “may … walk away from his direct pledge to build the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility at Los Alamos.”

Across the aisle, meanwhile, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., last week introduced legislation – the “Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act of 2012” – to kill both the Tennessee and Los Alamos projects.

“The SANE Act will cut spending on outdated, wasteful nuclear weapons and related programs over the next ten years and will strengthen our long-term economic and national security,” Markey said in a statement.

START treaty

At issue is an Obama administration promise made during the debate over Senate ratification of the New START nuclear arms limitation deal with Russia. In a Feb. 2, 2010, formal notice to the Senate in support of the treaty, the president pledged full funding for both the Tennessee and Los Alamos projects, acknowledging their importance to maintaining a credible U.S. nuclear deterrent.

“I intend to (a) accelerate, to the extent possible, the design and engineering phase of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) building and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF); and (b) request full funding…” the president’s statement said.

Based on the spending plan laid out a year ago in support of the administration’s treaty commitment, “full funding” meant $300 million this year and another $300 million next year for the Los Alamos project. But House Republicans took the first steps to unravel the deal, voting last year to cut $100 million from the administration’s fiscal year 2012 request for the Los Alamos project.

The Los Alamos project has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. When the National Nuclear Security Administration first asked Congress in 2003 for budget authority to build the replacement building, the agency estimated the cost at $500 million and said it would be completed by 2011.

The first phase of the project, a small lab and office space, has been completed, but the main building, where most of the work with dangerously radioactive plutonium would be done, has been delayed repeatedly. With final designs not yet completed, the agency now estimates the cost at $4 billion to $6 billion, and says it would not be completed until the early 2020s.

While it was the Republican House that took that first budget cutting step last year, nuclear weapons spending advocates blame the Obama administration for not pushing back hard enough against the House’s proposed cuts. Defense policy analyst Baker Spring at the Heritage Foundation called the House action “an initial unraveling” of the administration’s treaty commitments.

Spring said the administration’s promises during the New START treaty deliberations obligate it to request full funding for the Los Alamos project and other nuclear weapons work.

A lot of past spending agreements across the federal budget will have to be broken to achieve the steep budget cuts promised in the political brinksmanship of last summer, said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear security analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Study.

“All of those deals by definition become moot,” Lewis said.

Nuclear ambiguity

The debate exposes an ambiguity at the heart of the administration’s nuclear weapons policy. Speaking in Prague in 2009, President Obama pledged “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” But in the next sentence, Obama added, “This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime.”

In the years since, Lewis noted, Obama has pursued the arms control deals embodied in the soaring rhetoric of the first sentence, while at the same time deflecting his critics and sealing deals by promising increased spending on the nuclear arsenal that remains.

“He’s now stuck with that second sentence,” Lewis said.

Given the budgetary realities, it may be congressional appropriators who make the decision in the end. As chairman of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Turner can push for money, but his committee doesn’t have the final say on spending.

“Then there are the appropriators, who are looking at the math straight in the face,” said Kingston Reif, an analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal