Nuclear security given high priority

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The FY2011 DOE budget calls for an extra $393 million for the nuclear weapons lab

By Roger Snodgrass

The first round of budget proposals looks unusually favorable for Los Alamos National Laboratory next year. The FY2011 Department of Energy budget announced Monday called for an extra $393 million for the nuclear weapons laboratory.

The prospective raise comes after a leveling period and at a time when other discretionary parts of the budget are expected to be flat or worse.

Altogether the Obama administration proposed a $3.83 trillion budget for the nation that comes with a $1.27 trillion deficit.

A rationale for increases in the nuclear weapons area was spelled out by Vice President Joe Biden in an op-ed piece Friday in the Wall Street Journal, where he declared that the budget would reverse a decade-long decline in which “our laboratories and facilities have been under-funded and undervalued.”

The subhead made the point even more explicit: “We will spend what is necessary to maintain the safety, security and effectiveness of our weapons,” Biden wrote, spelling out a commitment for supporting the work of maintaining the nuclear stockpile and containing potentially dangerous nuclear material around the world.

LANL’s share of the Department of Energy’s $28.4 billion budget would go up 22 percent next year, from $1.823 billion to $2.216 billion. If the Obama administration has its way, the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 would see significant raises for weapons, infrastructure and nuclear non-proliferation.

Included in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget for LANL is a $225 million down payment for design work on the multi-billion nuclear facility at the heart of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement complex. The CMRR will consolidate the nation’s plutonium work at Los Alamos, including manufacturing capability for nuclear triggers known as “pits.”

“You don’t need two plutonium capabilities, only one,” NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said, introducing the nuclear security spending blueprint during a Washington teleconference. “But if we’re only going to have one it can’t be the 60-year-old facility that we have right now.”

In a teleconference a few minutes later, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. said, “The Department of Energy funding, I think, is very favorable to our state. Overall it’s in the range of 12.7 percent of increased DOE funding that would be coming to New Mexico, much of it to our national labs, both LANL and Sandia.”

Counting Sandia National Laboratory, DOE spending in New Mexico would go up nearly a half-billion dollars.

Nuclear watchdogs grumbled at the boost in spending at the national laboratories at a time when reducing the world’s nuclear threats was supposed to be the national priority.

“It really looks like there is a shift in the relative importance of defense and non-defense spending when there is a cap on non-discretionary spending, but not on defense spending” Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, said. He said it was the largest annual increase in spending at Los Alamos in constant dollars since 1944. “A lot of money could be saved with more focused management and a more careful vetting of missions.”

Jack Jakowski, a nuclear security policy consultant with Innovative Technology Partnerships in Albuquerque, said it was still very early in the process.

“I usually don’t get excited until a couple of days after the budget proposal comes out,” he said. “Speculating immediately is not always accurate.”

In a recent report to his clients he correctly predicted a significant increase in the NNSA budget and infrastructure. He interpreted the proposal as having been aimed at gaining support in the Senate for ratifying upcoming arms control negotiations, renewing and expanding the START treaty with Russia and finishing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, left over from the Clinton administration.

“The quid pro quo, of course, will be that the Administration will be looking for support from the Right for the new START concessions, the CTBT and perhaps other commitments to the world community to forward the Administration’s march toward the elimination of nuclear weapons at the planned April 12-13 Nuclear Security Summit and the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference that will follow in May.” Jakowski wrote, “This should at least provide some temporary respite for the (nuclear weapons) complex as the dynamic political environment might make significant readjustments this year, as indicated by the stunning victory for the Republicans in Massachusetts.”

Bingaman said the investment in nuclear security while working to reduce the numbers of nuclear warheads was not a contradiction.

“Insuring the long-term reliability of the weapons we do have is not inconsistent with wanting to reduce the size of the arsenal,” he said.

One downside in the budget spotted by Bingaman in Monday’s flurry of numbers was that the administration once again zeroed out funding for upgrades at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center. Last year, Bingaman and his colleague, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M, succeeded in restoring the cuts.

In an announcement, he said, “I plan to make a strong argument to the administration that the upgrade is needed.”

As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he has asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu to testify about the budget on Thursday.