Udall sees new missions in lab’s future

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Senator holds townhall meeting at LANL

By Roger Snodgrass

A political figure who risked alienating some of his constituents by warning that the age of nuclear weapons was in eclipse a few years ago sees opportunities where others fear cuts.

Asked about recent reports that the Department of Energy would end the decades-long project to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M, saw a bright side. While admitting it was a tough issue for the President and for Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who “is in the middle of a reelection campaign,” Udall said alternatives would be explored.

“Everything I read about this issue in the papers, I think, ‘There’s more work for Los Alamos,’” Udall said during his visit to Los Alamos National Laboratory Thursday.

Udall represented Los Alamos County and Northern New Mexico in the House for 10 years, before defeating former Rep. Steve Pearce of Hobbs in 2008.

In Los Alamos County, Udall won by 47 votes out of some 11,000 votes cast. Statewide he won by 61 percent.

The victory gave Udall the senate seat vacated by six-term Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a popular figure in Los Alamos, known to be a friend of “big science” projects, who was known for delivering federal funds, especially when the chips were down.

Udall returned to the theme of trying to diversify work at the laboratory in order to regain a path of sustainability in an era of declining budgets.

In his conversation with laboratory employees, he said that for years, the view in Washington has been that the footprint for nuclear weapons is shrinking.

He was gratified that the first budget of the Obama administration had specifically endorsed “diversity” in the national laboratories, while emphasizing new national security missions like nuclear non-proliferation, climate issues and clean energy.

One trophy he brought back from this year’s budget battles had to do with restoring funding for refurbishing the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, which had been zeroed out by the administration.

The cut was identified early in the budget process and given a high priority by Udall and his colleague Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. Their focus was rewarded when the funds were restored.

Udall was also pleased about the “hundreds of millions” that were assigned to the laboratory for the environmental cleanup program by way of both stimulus funds and the Department of Energy budget this year.

Los Alamos County Council Chair Michael Wheeler asked about a key assessment to be concluded before the next budget cycle begins, known as the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).

Washington officials appeared reluctant to propose substantial changes or new initiatives in the nuclear weapons complex this year, pending release of the NPR and other formal evaluations by the Obama administration.

“It’s important to get it out there,” Udall said. “I don’t expect this to mean a dramatic change.”

Similarly, on a new National Academies of Sciences study designed to review the quality of scientific research at LANL and other weapons labs, Udall said he thought that question might come up.

So he took from his pocket and read a short note describing the mandate to NAS for a study under the FY 2010 Defense Authorization Act, along with the contracts for managing the laboratories.

“With a big, dynamic institution like this, occasionally you step back and ask how things are operating,” he said. “The questions are always out there.”

LANL’s nuclear weapons chief Charles McMillan asked Udall what he is doing to educate his colleagues on the issues surrounding the negotiations of the START disarmament treaty with Russia.

“I always make the offer to come to the laboratory and be briefed,” he said.

On a non-laboratory subject, Udall said he thought there would be a Senate health care reform bill on the Senate floor next Tuesday and he thought there would be a final bill “within the next six weeks to two months.”

He said there was a huge need for greater prevention efforts as well as insurance reform.

“We don’t have a health care system,” he said. “It’s more like a sick care system or disease management system.”

Asked about the economic situation, Udall said consumer confidence was “way-way down,” that businesses can’t get credit, especially small businesses, which was something he was working on with his colleagues.  

As a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he said there could not be a better time for creating jobs to tackle a huge backlog of deferred infrastructure projects, including bridges, roads and renewable energy facilities.