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N.M. Labs Likely To Gain From Treaty Push

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
          The price tag for maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons could be headed up again.
        After a 10 percent budget increase in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, and a plan to push for more increases in future years, the Obama administration is telegraphing its intentions to up the ante.
        The new money is part of the administration's efforts to win Senate approval of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a deal with the Russians to reduce both nations' nuclear arsenals by 30 percent.
        While it is not yet clear where the money would go, nuclear programs at New Mexico's weapons labs, Sandia and Los Alamos, appear a likely destination for a big chunk of the cash.
        In a letter last month to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Vice President Joe Biden said it appears the already hefty increases laid out in the administration's long-term nuclear weapons spending plan may not be enough.
        The fact this comes from the vice president's office suggests the motivation.
        Biden is the administration's point man on the New START.
        Central to winning support from conservative Senate Republicans has been the administration's commitment of money to what has come to be known as "nuclear modernization" — upgrades to the nuclear weapons themselves, and to the complex of labs and plants where the warheads and bombs are maintained.
        Since February, the Obama administration's successive nuclear weapons budget plans have looked a bit like a one-bidder auction.
        In February, the administration's first long-term budget plan called for increasing nuclear weapons spending at the National Nuclear Security Administration from $6.4 billion in 2010 to $7.6 billion by 2015.
        A 10-year spending plan sent to Congress in May bid that up to $8.8 billion by 2020.
        But even that will probably not be enough, Biden wrote in a Sept. 15 letter to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
        Since the May report, the nuclear weapons program managers have taken another look at key elements of the nuclear weapons modernization effort, according to Biden, including weapons refurbishment and new multibillion-dollar uranium and plutonium buildings in Tennessee and at Los Alamos.
        Based on those new reviews, Biden wrote, "We expect that funding requirements will increase in future budget years."
        National Nuclear Security Administration officials are mum on the details of the numbers behind Biden's assertion, but they could emerge into public view soon. In his letter, Biden promised updated numbers "later this fall," a reference to the possible post-election return of a lame-duck Senate to consider, among other things, the New START.
        Whether that happens is an open question, depending significantly on the outcome of today's election, said David Culp, a lobbyist with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Washington, D.C., arms-control advocacy group.
        There is opposition to the treaty among a conservative faction of Senate Republicans, lead by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC. If the election results strengthen the DeMint wing, according to Culp and others, Senate Republicans could exercise their power over Senate procedure to push off New START deliberations to the new Congress in 2011.
        If that happens, the chance of the treaty's passage shrinks. Might the Obama administration's enthusiasm for nuclear weapons spending shrink as well?
        Program officials say the spending is needed regardless, to reverse years of nuclear weapons complex neglect that have, for example, left Los Alamos scientists working with dangerously radioactive plutonium in a 50-year-old building with radioactive waste pipes that leak.
        The underlying need for the money — whether it is genuinely needed, or is being used to solve a political problem — has been little discussed. Within the government, there have been no significant public voices questioning the spending.
        Outside government there are skeptics, even within the weapons community.
        One of the most visible has been Bob Peurifoy, a retired Sandia Labs vice president and respected weapons program veteran. He argues the new spending is unnecessary for the actual job of maintaining the nuclear arsenal.
        "I suggest that some have trouble distinguishing between 'must have' and 'fun to have' facilities," Peurifoy said in a recent e-mail to a group of prominent nuclear weapons experts.
        UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. John Fleck can be reached at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com.

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