Senate committee OK’s funds for key LANL programs

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By Tris DeRoma

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation Tuesday that, if passed by the House and Senate intact this fall, would bring $38.4 billion in funding to New Mexico – much of that going to the state’s national laboratories.

The funds would also go to support the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nuclear waste treatment plant in Carlsbad, and various federal water restoration projects within the state.

Los Alamos National Laboratory programs funded by the committee include the B61 nuclear weapon life extension program at $788.5 million, $200 million for plutonium pit manufacturing and $161 million for the supercomputer development program.

Sandia and Los Alamos National laboratories are working on ways to extend the B61 program’s life by at least 20 years.

Sandia is working on adding a guidance system to the tail and LANL’s role is to update the weapon’s other components.

The first completed B61 unit is due in March of 2020. The project’s estimated cost is $8.1 billion. The life extension program is being managed by the National Nuclear Safety Administration.

The appropriations committee also added millions in funding to help bolster the laboratory’s aging infrastructure.

Included in the bill is $180.9 million for the lab’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project, which is expected to start in 2021 and be completed by 2024. The CMR facility supports the manufacture and refurbishment of the plutonium pits used in nuclear weaponry. The funds will go toward upgrading and replacing parts of the facility, which was built in the 1950s.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), a member of the appropriations committee said the bill should also revitalize New Mexico’s research and development sector.

“As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I am proud to champion our national labs by fighting for the funding needed to keep these facilities strong,” Udall said. “This bill makes critical investments in New Mexico’s economy, including strengthening technology transfer. Tech transfer will energize New Mexico’s private sector by harnessing the vanguard research and development being carried out at our national labs – helping turn researchers’ ideas into vibrant, innovative businesses.”

Despite some well-publicized setbacks in the lab’s plutonium pit manufacturing program, the bill also includes $200 million to aid in the plutonium pit manufacturing process itself. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy announced it wanted LANL to increase its pit manufacturing process from the current three to four pits a year to 80 by 2027.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich welcomed the news.

“LANL employs some of the best and brightest minds in the country and has been indispensable to our national security and global stability. I’m proud to work alongside Senator Udall to champion New Mexico’s national labs and make sure they have the resources they need,” Heinrich said.  

The bill also promises $20 million for the lab’s waste treatment programs.

As for ongoing “legacy” waste cleanup efforts at the laboratory, the committee is proposing $271.5 million for fiscal year 2018, a $23.5 million dollar increase over this year’s budget for the project.

Legacy waste includes all waste on the property that has collected at the site before 1979. The budget for the cleanup is being handled through the DOE’s Los Alamos field office of the Environmental Management.

EM officials contacted at the Los Alamos field office said they could not comment on proposed budget legislation, that they were only allowed to comment on officially adopted legislation.