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LANL Lab Price Tag Hits $2.6B

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    The estimated cost of a proposed new nuclear materials lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory has ballooned to $2.6 billion, according to a Senate report, up from the most recent estimate of $2 billion published by the Bush administration in February.
    The new price tag is more than four times the initial estimate when Los Alamos and the National Nuclear Security Administration first proposed the project in 2003.
    The new number was included in the Senate Armed Services Committee's report on the fiscal year 2009 budget. The committee recommends cutting funding for the project, in large part because of uncertainty of what it will cost to meet safety requirements for the project.
    A Los Alamos spokesman said that lab officials are still working on the proposed building's design and that any firm cost estimates at this point are premature. There is still significant uncertainty about the scale of the project, which makes such estimates premature, spokesman Kevin Roark said Thursday.
    Los Alamos officials insist the project is vital to the lab's future. It would do the scientific analysis for the lab's future nuclear weapons manufacturing work, as well as work related to nuclear power and nuclear nonproliferation, they say.
    Critics of the lab and the U.S. nuclear weapons program have made fighting the project one of the centerpieces of their agenda, saying the project is unneeded.
    The new laboratory building at Los Alamos, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building Replacement, would supplant an aging building at the lab where scientists analyze samples of plutonium and other radioactive materials.
    Escalating costs have plagued efforts to replace the old complex. When the project was first proposed in its current form in 2003, it carried a price tag of $500 million. A year ago, NNSA Administrator Tom D'Agostino told members of Congress he was concerned about the project's rising costs. At the time, the price tag was $1.5 billion.
    The committee's action to oppose funding for the new lab is the first of four key congressional committee votes the next four months that will determine the fate of the project.