House panel hears weapons proposal

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By The Staff

House appropriators were expected to adopt a subcommittee report that dealt several zeros to Los Alamos National Laboratory in next year’s budget.

The House Appropriation Committee this morning considered a proposed energy and water bill that added $2.4 billion to the current budget and $2.1 to the president’s budget request for energy and water, while prescribing significant reductions in nuclear weapons programs.

Approval by the committee would move the bill to the full House. The outcome of that process would then be negotiated with the Senate, which has failed to deliver a bill of its own in recent years.

Last week, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., joined two other senators who wrote a letter and memorandum to President Bush calling on him “to reverse the dangerous decline in our strategic nuclear deterrent.”

The senators advised the president that the administration “must be prepared to issue a veto threat” if the House bill failed to support some of the provisions they considered essential, like the Reliable Replace Warhead (RRW).

Consistent with recent actions in the House, the subcommittee’s report emphatically halted work on the RRW, a project that is supposed to make the next generation of nuclear weapons safer, leaner and more reliable, but the report criticized the RRW for not yet having a “contemporary, coherent and durable strategy.”

The proposal would also end funding for the lab’s largest construction project, the $2.2 billion Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility.

“In the absence of critical decisions on the nature and size of the (nuclear weapon) stockpile, which in turn generate requirements for the nature and capacity of the nuclear weapons complex, it is impossible to determine the capacity required of either of these facilities,” according to the subcommittee report. “It would be imprudent to design and construct on the basis of a guess at their required capacity.”

This year, the committee also decided to seek at least a temporary hold on plutonium pit manufacturing, the job of making new nuclear triggers, which has been restored to the weapons complex by LANL. The subcommittee did not see the value of making pits for the W88 warhead, which are used on Trident submarines, and which the report considered “obsolete.”

Instead of funding a continuation of the LANL pit production program that delivered a batch of certified pits last year, the committee recommended an amount to continue the capability, “in order to maintain future options.”

Viewing the situation across the nuclear weapons complex, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said the cuts were a matter of concern.

“This could have a substantial impact, I think, on jobs, and an impact on NNSA’s ability to maintain the nuclear weapons deterrent,” said John Broehm.

Failure to fund the CMRR he said would require expensive short-term patchwork fixes on the existing facility, a half-century-old structure.

The laboratory issued a prepared statement Tuesday saying that it has been working to position itself to be the institution of choice for national security science.

“The FY2009 budget process is now in its earliest stages, and the laboratory will work closely with Congress, particularly the New Mexico delegation, and the NNSA to sort through next year's challenges,” the laboratory’s statement read. “Clearly though, it will be many months before any final budget scenario is solidified.”

In remarks last week when the subcommittee approved the bill, Chairman Peter Vizclosky, D-Ind., noted that the proposal adds $844 million to the president’s request for energy research.

For the nuclear weapons programs, he described a $400 million cut from the president’s request, from $6.6 billion to $6.2 billion.

Along with the cuts, he pointed out that the recommendation adds $283 million to the category of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, $237 million of which would be devoted to nuclear safeguards, material protection and de-enrichment. The subcommittee doubled the president’s request in the area of weapon surety, including protections against sabotage of American nuclear weapons.

He also noted that the recommendation contained $4.86 billion for science, an increase of $140 million over the president’s request and $844 million over the current level of funding.

Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, ranking member of the subcommittee that drafted the budget proposal for the full Department of Energy and water-related agencies, recommended the bill to the full committee.

“I am pleased that the subcommittee continues its support for nuclear power, full funding for Yucca Mountain, requested authority for extension of nuclear loan guarantees and research for next generation nuclear plants,” he said.

The proposal under consideration included $1 million, requested by Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., for LANL’s long-range materials research and development proposal for MaRIE (Matter-Radiation in Extremes).