Senate panel votes to restore LANL funds

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By Roger Snodgrass

A Senate subcommittee this morning proposed to restore funding for a major construction project at Los Alamos National Laboratory, but agreed with the House on withholding funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) project that the Bush Administration requested.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee called the Senate proposal for the Department of Energy, Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, “one of the most inadequately funded bills,” under consideration.

“There is no relationship between this bill and what people want to have done,” he said.

Still, he found a number of positive provisions to mention in the FY09 spending measure, including “new investments for science facilities and science based stockpile stewardship.”

Funding has “come down a tiny bit” for the defense labs, “but when you look at the overall picture, they are adequately funded,” he said.

He said the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility buildings were funded.

“The money is in there to finish them,” he said, “and the pit program is funded.”

Domenici especially praised a provision in the bill that countered the House proposal to reduce Laboratory Directed Research and Development Funds. In a tug-of-war, the House reduced last year’s percentage of the laboratories funds that could be invested at the directors’ discretion from 8 percent to 4 percent.

“We have brought it back up to 10 (percent),” he said.

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., announced a plan to hold a roundtable forum at the end of this month to talk about a “long-term stabilization funding plan” for the national laboratories.

He said the forum might occur in two stages – with the directors of the weapons laboratories first and then the heads of the other labs. The purpose would be to develop “new and interesting ideas” for sustaining the labs’ scientific contributions into the future.

Domenici has advocated this idea, according to a spokesperson, and intends to participate fully in the process.

The subcommittee meeting was shortened to about a half hour, with time for only a few remarks by committee members.

Information from Domenici’s office after the subcommittee proposal was adopted put the total figure for the National Nuclear Security Administration that supervises the nuclear weapons complex at $9.6 billion. Of that, $6.52 billion was apportioned for weapons activities, $93 million less than requested by the administration, but $227 million more than current funding.

Among the details, the Senate proposal called for $125 million for LANL’s CMRR. In contrast, the House eliminated the president’s $100 million request for the CMRR.

The Senate bill would reinstate $145 million for pit manufacturing activities at LANL. The job of making nuclear triggers was left unfunded in the House Bill. The Senate added some funds as well, including $10 million to shift pit-related work now at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to LANL.

Domenici and Dorgan disagreed about the $10 million requested by the administration to keep plans moving forward on replacing the nuclear warheads in the future stockpile.

According to a recent program plan outline provided to Congress, LLNL receives about $9 million this year for activities on the RRW under the current funding split, while LANL gets about $5 million.

Dorgan said the funding would not be provided, awaiting an ongoing review. He added that the decision would be left for the next administration.

Domenici called the Senate outline “a great bill,” but noted that he was prepared to debate the RRW issue before the full Senate.

The House bill has passed committee and is awaiting a hearing on the floor. The Senate version goes to committee on Thursday and then to the floor. The two versions must then be resolved and approved again by the respective chambers before going to the president for signature.