Legislators ponder lab's economic future

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By Roger Snodgrass

ESPAÑOLA – The co-chairman of a state legislative committee said he was interested in how the committee could help continue the “vibrant existence” and “vital economic force” of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Sen. Phil Griego, D-Los Alamos, Mora, San Miguel, Santa Fe and Taos, is co-chair of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Legislative Oversight Committee. Last year, he found himself and others on the committee taken by surprise by the news that LANL’s funding appeared to be facing deep cuts in Congress.

The prediction turned out not to be true – funding remained flat under a continuing resolution – but the budget and diversified mission discussions that emerged from last year were still on committee members’ minds.

The panel expected Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. to provide his view of LANL’s future at their first meting of the year on Friday, as they prepared for the regular legislative session in early 2009.

Bingaman, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Committee, is traveling this week in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but he sent his state director, Terry Brunner, to read a brief statement on the Senator’s behalf and answer questions.

The statement emphasized the “multi-purpose” aspects of the laboratory, which has long been involved in a spectrum of scientific work, “from environmental remediation to fuel cells and from military reconnaissance to oil exploration technology.”

The senator pointed out that New Mexico is the largest recipient of funds from the Department of Energy budget and that the income from DOE is comparable to the state’s own budget.

Breaking down the current funding, the statement calculated LANL’s appropriation at about $2.2 billion for fiscal year 2008, level with recent years. Of that, he wrote, $1.8 billion came from DOE, with $1.5 billion pertaining to the maintenance of the nuclear stockpile. Another $300 million was attributed to “work for others,” meaning work for non-DOE entities, whether governmental like the departments of defense and homeland security, or private.

Bingaman’s statement noted that Congress once again “has had a difficult time getting to an agreement,” on an appropriation bill, particularly on issues about “how many weapons and what type” they should be.

Bingaman expressed bottom-line confidence that for the long-term the nation needed to maintain a strong science workforce. He saw new opportunities in technology that would lessen the nation’s dependence on oil and greenhouse gasses. He specifically mentioned the need for energy storage for hybrid cars and maintaining competitiveness with the Chinese in computer chips and biotechnology.

He called for the lab to put its best talents forward to compete for funds that have been added to DOE’s Office of Science budget, and noted that both presidential candidates have advocated non-proliferation programs, in which LANL is well-positioned to continue its prominent role.

On the controversial matter of expanded nuclear pit production — or manufacturing the triggers for nuclear weapons — at the laboratory, Bingaman’s position remains that he supports maintaining “a limited capability” at the laboratory, but is concerned about a “major pit manufacturing capability,” as the administration has proposed. Such a shift, he believes, would alter the fundamental character of the laboratory from science to manufacturing.

Sen. Carlos Sisneros, D-Taos, was among the members of the committee looking for the possibility of new funds, programs and educational opportunities for constituents. “Is there no increase anticipated? No new developments?” he asked.

Brunner said that a continuing resolution remains the most likely outcome of the current political situation. That would keep funding at the same level again for next year, but would have some consequences.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, asked about funding for environmental cleanup. Brunner replied that he thought the funding was up to $250 million in the Senate bill, but Brunner warned that under a continuing resolution, there might not be additional funds.

On that point, Rep. Jeannette Wallace, R-Los Alamos, Sandoval, Santa Fe, made a statement objecting to a situation she described as the Department of Energy providing funding to the New Mexico Environment Department “to oversee us, but doesn’t provide funds to the lab for cleanup.” Then, she said, the environment department fines the lab for not accomplishing its cleanup.

The meeting took place in the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation’s facility, the Center for Education and Non-Profit Leadership in the Plaza Del Norte.

The committee was given a tour of the new building by LANL Foundation Executive Director Susan Herrera, who also briefed the committee on developments at the foundation in the afternoon.

Loretta Valerio, Director of the Nuclear Workers Advocacy, a state-sponsored service for nuclear workers who have suffered illnesses, rounded out the committee’s agenda for the day. The office is now located in the New Mexico Environment Department.

The next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 17, will be held in Los Alamos. LANL Director Michael Anastasio has been invited to attend. The meeting is expected to focus on technology commercialization and transfer.