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          Front Page




Proposed Cuts May Hurt N.M. Labs

By John Arnold
Journal Northern Bureau
    The Bush administration is proposing budget cuts that may threaten "the long-term vitality" of New Mexico's national laboratories, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said on Monday.
    Bingaman, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, plans to call Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman before his committee this week to explain the Department of Energy's $24.3 billion spending plan for 2007-08.
    Although the 2008 proposal represents a slight increase over the department's current spending, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories would see significant cuts in weapons and science programs.
    The proposed budget "invests in infrastructure and security at the labs but takes away from science and engineering," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said.
    The Energy Department proposes spending $4.1 billion in New Mexico in fiscal year 2008, down from $4.3 billion approved for the 2006 budget. (An Energy Department budget for the current year has yet to be approved, so spending is continuing at 2006 levels.)
    Los Alamos' $1.8 billion budget would be reduced by about $24 million overall, including a 6 percent cut in weapons programs.
    Sandia's $1.4 billion budget would decline by nearly $120 million, including a $77 million cut in weapons funding.
    Although the Energy Department's budget for the American Competitiveness Initiative— an effort to encourage scientific innovation— would increase by $300 million, Sandia's science budget would be cut by 6 percent and LANL's would remain flat.
    "While I am glad to see the Office of Science's budget grow, I am disappointed that our own outstanding labs will not be the beneficiaries," Bingaman said.
    LANL spokesman Kevin Roark said Monday that Los Alamos National Security, the company that manages the lab, has been anticipating a flat or slightly reduced budget. But he noted that the spending plan still must work its way through Congress.
    "This is just the beginning of the budget process," Roark said. "So it is way too early to tell what this initial budget would mean for Los Alamos."
    Los Alamos Study Group Executive Director Greg Mello on Monday downplayed proposed cuts to Energy Department spending in the state, saying, "Continued focus of attention on the DOE labs is exactly the wrong focus for economic development in New Mexico."
    Meanwhile, the Energy Department budget proposes to advance "Complex 2030," the department's plan to modernize and consolidate the nation's nuclear weapons complex. Funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a new nuclear weapon design meant to replace aging weapons in the existing stockpile, would increase by $61 million over 2007 levels.
    Overall, the Energy Department— through its National Nuclear Security Administration— plans to spend $6.5 billion on weapons programs, up slightly from the 2007 request.
    At LANL, funding for plutonium pit manufacturing would increase by $14.5 million, environmental cleanup would get a nearly $50 million boost, and security funding would increase by $45 million.
    "This budget will help us expand our nation's scientific know-how, protect generations from the dangers of our Cold War legacy, and safely and reliably maintain our nation's nuclear weapons stockpile," Bodman said in a news release.
    But lab watchdogs criticized the plan, including cuts to programs meant to ensure the reliability and extend the lifetimes of weapons in the existing stockpile.
    The Department of Energy is "betting the house" on the new Reliable Replacement Warhead design, said Jay Coghlan of the group Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
    "This is folly, in my view. ... We're going to be betting our national security on untested new nuclear weapons, rather than maintaining extensively tested weapons," he said.


E-MAIL writer John Arnold