Saturday, February 14, 2009
Labs' Nuclear Work in Danger
By John Fleck
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
The Obama administration wants to kill major nuclear weapons design and manufacturing programs left by its Republican predecessors and ratchet down the amount of non-weapons science done at Los Alamos and other nuclear weapons labs, according to a document obtained by the Journal.
The memo calls for canceling the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a proposal to design a new U.S. nuclear weapon.
Other proposed changes:
• Cancel plans to expand Los Alamos National Laboratory's capability to make plutonium warhead parts.
• Cancel spending to upgrade the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, a major non-weapons science project that federal officials have argued is critical to supporting non-weapons science at Los Alamos.
• Cut in half money allotted to Los Alamos and the other nuclear weapons labs, including Sandia National Laboratories, for "laboratory-directed research and development" — money the labs use to pursue promising research of their own choosing.
• Consider delaying new supercomputer purchases.
Details of the memo were first reported by the Washington, D.C., trade publications Inside the Pentagon and Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor.
Money saved by the cuts would be shifted to U.S. efforts to halt the international spread of nuclear weapons, according to the document.
Overall, the proposal calls for a 1.5 percent increase in 2010 funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the U.S. nuclear weapons program. More than 20,000 people in New Mexico, primarily at Sandia and Los Alamos national labs, work for NNSA.
Officials at the agency and the labs declined to comment Friday, citing the internal nature of the current deliberations.
The document, part of the administration's internal deliberations over the 2010 budget, is the clearest indication made public to date of the course the new Obama team plans to set on U.S. nuclear weapons policy.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, spoke out last fall in favor of the Reliable Replacement Warhead. During the campaign, Barack Obama had raised objections to the project, but in a way that left the door open to some modest research efforts.
The memo suggests an effort under way now to close that door, going out of its way to ensure that both direct funding for the RRW program, as well as indirect funding in other research programs that would support RRW work, is zeroed out in the soon-to-be delivered Fiscal Year 2010 budget now being prepared.
"The RRW program, both explicitly and implicitly, is canceled," the memo says.
The memo appears to freeze Los Alamos National Laboratory's plutonium manufacturing capability at a maximum of 20 nuclear weapon cores, known as "pits," per year. Recent policy discussions have considered expanding beyond that level.
The memo is silent on one of the most expensive nuclear weapons projects at Los Alamos, the multibillion Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement complex. The big new plutonium laboratory would replace a building that is half a century old and that has been branded a hazard by federal nuclear safety auditors.
A Congressional funding committee in 2007 concluded that, if RRW was not going to be built, there was no need for the new nuclear lab. Lab and NNSA officials disagree, saying other important work, including nuclear safety and non-proliferation work, will also be done in the new laboratory, and the unsafe old building must be replaced.