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Plutonium Lab Key Part of Updated Nuke Policy

By John Fleck
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          The Obama administration doesn't want to build any new nuclear weapons, but thinks we need to spend billions of dollars to maintain the level of deterrent we now have.
        A multibillion-dollar new plutonium lab in Los Alamos and money for the nuclear weapons scientists who would use it are centerpieces of the Pentagon's updated national nuclear weapons policy, unveiled Tuesday.
        Replacement of old Cold War nuclear weapons design and manufacturing buildings, and a focus on human talent at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, which include Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico, are critical pieces to maintaining our long-term nuclear deterrent, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters during a televised Pentagon briefing.
        "The United States must make much-needed investments to rebuild our aging nuclear infrastructure, both facilities and personnel," Gates said.
        Gates' comments were backed up with an Obama administration commitment to transfer $5 billion over the next several years from the Pentagon budget to the Department of Energy, which runs the laboratories.
        The comments were made as Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Energy Secretary Steven Chu unveiled the nation's first Nuclear Posture Review since 2002.
        The document updates U.S. nuclear weapons policy, including steps to be taken to reduce U.S. reliance on the weapons for defense. Conventional weapons are sufficient to deal with some threats, including countries armed with chemical or biological weapons, Gates said.
        "We are recalibrating our priorities to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, and we are reducing the role and number of weapons in our arsenal," Clinton said during the briefing.
        The new review includes an unprecedented emphasis on the work done by the labs and nuclear weapons manufacturing plants, according to sources familiar with past Nuclear Posture Reviews, which were largely classified.
        The 72-page Nuclear Posture Review released Tuesday is entirely unclassified. The document says the U.S. will not build any "new" nuclear weapons, but with a definition that could allow some new weapons manufacturing in the future if refurbishing aging weapons by replacing some of their parts proves insufficient. Such refurbishments "will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities," Gates told reporters.
        Arsenal reductions place greater emphasis on the maintenance of the weapons that remain, officials said. The problem, according to the review, is that the complex of labs and plants needed to do the work "has fallen into neglect."
        The document calls for:
        • A multibillion-dollar replacement for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building, a six-decades-old plutonium research complex at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Plutonium is one of the two main radioactive materials at the heart of nuclear weapons.
        • A similar multibillion dollar uranium complex at the Y-12 weapons plant in Tennessee. Uranium is the other main radioactive material used in nuclear weapons.
        The review also calls for more spending on the people needed to do the nuclear weapons work.
        "Increased investment in the nuclear infrastructure and a highly skilled workforce are needed to ensure the long-term safety, security and effectiveness of our nuclear arsenal," the authors wrote.
        To that end, the Obama administration has asked Congress for $11.2 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration next year, a 13.4 percent increase over this year's spending. The budget request for next year calls for a 26 percent increase in nuclear weapons spending at Los Alamos, to $1.6 billion. The request for Sandia's nuclear weapons work is $1.1 billion, 20 percent over this year's spending.
        Two top Republican lawmakers said the proposed budget increases may not be enough. Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and John Kyl issued a joint statement calling the funding "woefully inadequate to bring our Manhattan Project-era facilities up to date and do the work necessary to enhance the reliability and extend the life of our warheads, all while maintaining the current stockpile. This funding insufficiency must be corrected."
        The report sends a good message about the importance of New Mexico's nuclear weapons work force, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
        "This Nuclear Posture Review speaks directly to the national importance of our two laboratories," Bingaman said in a statement. "As we draw down the number of U.S. warheads, it will be more important than ever to ensure the reliability of the remaining nuclear deterrent — and Sandia and Los Alamos labs are central to that role."
        Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., agreed. "The Administration continues to recognize the critical role of our nuclear weapons laboratories, and I am pleased to know it is committed to investing in the infrastructure, workforce, and programs that enable Sandia National Laboratories to fulfill its vital national security mission," Heinrich, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
        Heinrich and Bingaman also praised the review's emphasis on expanding the country's efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

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