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Federal budget proposal commits funds for plutonium pit program

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By Tris DeRoma

President Donald Trump’s budget requests $30.6 billion for the Department of Energy, with  $26 billion marked for the replacement of infrastructure and to modernize the Department of Energy’s nuclear enterprise.

“We are also requesting to continually upgrade, and construct, new, state-of-the-art facilities at our national labs,” Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry said during a press conference Monday. “We are also committed to science dominance, to spurring discovery and innovation at our national labs, ensuring that America retains its preeminent place in scientific research and technology commercialization in an increasingly competitive world.”

During the press conference Monday, Acting Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) Administrator Steven C. Erhart said Los Alamos National Laboratory would remain an integral part of the Energy Department’s maintenance and expansion of the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

Erhart said the NNSA is committed to the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium pit production program for 30 pits per year.

“As the secretary alluded to earlier, we have got to reinstate our capability of producing new pits for the long-term health of our nuclear weapons program. We are committed to doing that,” Erhart said. “We’re committed to working with Los Alamos to get the first 30 pits per year working (by 2026).

“We’re also in the process of looking at alternatives of getting up to what is the current requirement of 80 pits per year by 2030,” Erhart said.

A November 2017 analysis of alternatives report authored by the DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration said the two agencies are analyzing long-term options that would support the 80 pits per year goal. One of the alternatives proposed is moving the entire plutonium pit manufacturing facility to the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

“In accordance with Congressional direction and DOE project management requirements, NNSA performed an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) to determine the most efficient and cost effective means to achieve plutonium pit manufacturing requirements for the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the Department of Energy said in a written statement Tuesday. “The AoA identified two options – one at Los Alamos National Laboratory and one at the Savannah River Site – for further engineering analysis, which will be conducted by a team of external and internal experts. NNSA must produce new pits to ensure that U.S. nuclear forces are modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure America’s allies.”

However, in a Dec. 18 letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, New Mexico’s congressional delegation, which included Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) discredited the report because it used old data to come up with the South Carolina option.

“The evaluation process undertaken by the National Nuclear Security Administration that led to this report was deeply flawed from the start and the results fail to support any reasonable alternative,” the letter said.

Perry said DOE’s $30.6 billion budget request is an “American’s first” request.

“This is a request not to the world, but to the American people through their representatives in Congress about the priorities of this department,” Perry said. “It represents a commitment that we will honor the trust of our citizens with trust, accountability, service.”

The department has requested $5.4 billion for research and development.

The budget request also includes $6.6 billion for waste legacy cleanup. 

“Finally, last year, we promised to fulfill the moral obligation of cleaning up the environmental legacy of the Cold War.

This year we are requesting the funds to do so, we are also looking for new efficiencies and innovations to accelerate these efforts, to change the culture at the sites that deal with this challenging mission,” Perry said.

Perry also addressed questions on why some priorities received more funding than others in this year’s budget. Some press outlets noted funds for renewable energy initiatives would receive about a billion dollars less in this year’s budget over last year’s budget.

“It would be a mistake to judge our view on the merits of any program solely on a one year budget request,” Perry said. “Success in the Department of Energy will not be measured by how much money we request for program, but rather by how well and how efficiently each program manages the precious resources entrusted to them by the American taxpayer to achieve their respective missions. Priorities will change, and funding will shift accordingly.”