Report: Labs to remain under DOE

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By The Staff

A notion about moving the U.S. nuclear weapons complex from the Department of Energy to the Defense Department may have been averted, according to Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, just back from a visit to the White House.

Or, the focus of the study may have changed to evaluating the role of the National Nuclear Security Administration in overseeing the laboratories, as Jude McCartin, a spokewswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., suggested.

Chavez and mayors from around the country met with President Barack Obama to discuss the economic stimulus package and talked with a handful of Cabinet secretaries, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Chavez says he talked with Chu about the Obama administration's plans to study a transfer of oversight of the labs, including Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, to the Pentagon.

An Office of Management and Budget memo made public earlier this month directed the two departments and the National Nuclear Security Administration to study the idea and report back by Sept. 30.

I think that one is nipped in the bud," Chavez said of the idea.

New Mexico's congressional delegation — particularly Democratic senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall — have been staunchly opposed to the idea, saying such a transfer would severely limit the scope of the labs' work on renewable energy, homeland security, nuclear nonproliferation and other issues. Chavez also is opposed to the idea.

Chavez says Chu "was very sensitive to those concerns."

Jude McCartin said that Bingaman has also spoken with Chu and has had three conversations with OMB director Peter Orszag about his opposition to any oversight transfer.

McCartin said Bingaman expects to hear back "very soon" from the OMB about whether officials intend to study a shift in oversight.

"We have not yet heard back from the OMB with the final answer on how they intend to proceed, but we're going to continue to work with them until they have an official response," McCartin said.

She called the idea "pretty much a nonstarter" because it would require legislation and Bingaman has found no support in Congress for the proposal.

However, Udall "remains extremely concerned" about the proposal to transfer the labs to the DOD, his spokeswoman, Marissa Padilla, wrote in an e-mail Friday. He, too, has spoken with Chu, Orszag and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"Senator Udall will continue fighting against the ill-conceived shift proposed in the leaked OMB memo so New Mexico's labs can continue to grow their missions," Padilla wrote.

Chu, who was formerly employed by the University of California, has limited his direct involvement in overseeing contract, financial and certain work performance decisions at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs, which are managed by UC, to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.