Jun 12, 2007

Budget battle for N.M. nuke labs gets more difficult

By James W. Brosnan
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

WASHINGTON — Just about every year the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee adds money for water projects and cuts the president's budget for funding nuclear weapons and facilities and thus the budgets for New Mexico's two weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia.

But this year, three differences make looming battles more critical.

First, the cuts are more severe. A cut of about $500 million was proposed for Los Alamos and $100 million for Sandia. By comparison, Congress cut weapons spending by a total of only $108 million in its last budget cycle.

Second, Rep. Tom Udall, the Santa Fe Democrat who represents Los Alamos, is now a member of the Appropriations Committee. He is taking political heat for the cuts proposed by the committee's Democratic chairman.

And third, Sen. Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, is no longer the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that will write its own spending plan for the labs and which could replace some or all of the lost funding. Now, he is its ranking minority member.

The new chairman is North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, and Domenici is counting on the departments of Energy and Defense to tell Dorgan that the House plan would weaken the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

"We have got to do better than the House did," Domenici said in an interview Friday with KRSN-AM (1490) in Los Alamos.

"This is about as serious a problem as we've seen, and it has the potential for affecting all New Mexico," he said.

The $31.6 billion House version of the energy and water spending bill could hit the House floor Wednesday or Thursday, but members of the New Mexico delegation do not expect the lab numbers to change.

Instead, Udall hopes to add a provision making clear that both Sandia and Los Alamos will be able to compete for about $600 million in funding for energy research under the bill.

"Los Alamos needs to diversify," Udall said. "I'm going to try to get language that makes Los Alamos and Sandia part of the new energy future."

In the long run, the end of the Cold War means there will be fewer nuclear weapons and a smaller government infrastructure, he said.

That was the point made by Rep. Peter Visclosky, the Indiana Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, as he slashed or eliminated funding in his bill for a new weapon, the reliable replacement warhead, as well as new facilities at Los Alamos to manufacture the plutonium "pits" that trigger nuclear bombs.

"The bill cuts funding for poorly thought-out plans for nuclear weapons, recognizing that because of the enormous cost and the importance to our national security they require smart strategies, not blank checks," Visclosky said.

Udall, who is not a member of Visclosky's subcommittee, voted "no" when the measure was approved on a voice vote in the full committee. He said the bill unfairly singled out the New Mexico labs, but he placed the blame on the Bush administration for not presenting Congress with a clear plan detailing the size of the future nuclear weapons stockpile and the infrastructure to support that plan.

"There's some real resentment (in the committee) in terms of DOE and the administration for not presenting a clear post-Cold War and post-9/11 plan," Udall said.

The New Mexico Republican Party blamed the committee rookie.

GOP Executive Director Adam Feldman said Udall "bowed to the liberal house leadership - and his district is now at risk."

But Visclosky's cuts met with no objection from the ranking Republican in his subcommittee, David Hobson of Ohio, who clashed in the past with Domenici over nuclear weapons funding.

Hobson called the measure "a good bill" and agreed that the stockpile plan from the administration is "essential before we invest significant resources in modernizing the DOE nuclear weapons complex."

On the same day that Feldman criticized Udall, the two Republican members of the New Mexico delegation, Heather Wilson of Albuquerque and Steve Pearce of Hobbs, sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee warning that the cuts, if enacted, "will do irreparable damage to our nation's security and devastate the nuclear weapons program."

They said cuts to the Stockpile Stewardship programs at Los Alamos would reduce the labs' ability to simulate nuclear explosions and thus make it more difficult to certify that the weapons are safe and reliable without nuclear testing.

Visclosky "could not disagree more" with Wilson and Pearce, said the chairman's spokesman, Justin Kitsch. He said the vast majority of cuts affect only new weapons programs.

Wilson and Pearce said the cuts also could mean the loss of about 400 jobs at Sandia and more than 1,000 at Los Alamos.

Udall declined to sign the Wilson-Pearce letter. Appropriators don't write letters to themselves, he noted. But he also said it was premature to project the impact of the budget cuts.

"We should not be getting carried away with doomsday predictions," Udall said.


Anonymous said...

Damn! How I miss the cold war! Funding wouldn't be an issue if we still had a cold war!

Anonymous said...

The Peace Dividend for winning the Cold War. Just ask all the former defense industry workers in Southern California.

Anonymous said...

"...the two Republican members of the New Mexico delegation, Heather Wilson...and Steve Pearce of Hobbs, sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee warning that the cuts, if enacted, "will do irreparable damage to our nation's security and devastate the nuclear weapons program."

Maybe they should start working on another one asking the President to veto this. Just in case.

Anonymous said...

This debate on the nuke issue will be on-going for the next few years, and at every turn they will cut a little out of LANL, until they(Congress) decides what the new Weapons Complex will look like...Hopefully we can play a small part....

Anonymous said...

I recently got out. Based on current headlines, I'm very glad to have done so. Many are hanging on, some in management because they they think thay can continue to "make a difference." A noble sentiment, but consider whether soldiering on gets you kudos from irrelevant people, or just wounded in action. There is no "purple heart" for service at LANL. If your career is wounded, it is wounded and no one can recover from that. If you think you can "make a difference" then get to someplace you can, as soon as possible. LANL isn't it. There is no incentive (good schools, low crime, etc.) that can justify your staying.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who still thinks there will not be a RIF in FY08 is a fool (and that includes Mikey)!

Anonymous said...

Mike needs to understand that people are making big financial and career decisions based on his "no RIF and no plans for a RIF" statements. This is not the time for feel-good statements. Mike has no way to tell what the future for LANL holds, but it doesn't look reassuring given the latest news. It's not good when those holding the purse strings, Congress, have specifically targeted your institution for financial punishment. Unlike previous years of possible budget shortfalls that had a wide effect on the whole DOE/NNSA complex, this one is pointed mostly at LANL, which makes it especially ominous.

Anonymous said...

A comparison between laboratories seems to be in order. Other organizations ask for money, too. How doesor did LANL perform? The basis of comparison could be as simple as a ratio of non-weapons funding to research value defined as patent licensing? The lab can't be protected from competition by its success in the 1940s. Could someone come forward with the numbers?

Anonymous said...

Good point 11:10. Although my decisions are not based on what the Director says, but on the overall uncertainty surrounding funding at LANL.

Personally, my big financial decisions were not to buy another house after selling my house, and not to buy a newer used car. On a smaller scale, I decided to cut down on my discretionary spending to offset the loss of the 457. Since that was pre-tax, I need to save much more after-tax to obtain the same amount.

Since I am too young to retire, I plan from the assumption I'll be laid off in tough times at worst and I'll receive no raises at best. If it works out better, then great. PhD? BFD.

Anonymous said...

Mikey has a golden parachute. Nothing to worry about there. As for Lab managers that want to make a difference--a difference in their bank accounts maybe. Other than that, most could care less about the wellbeing of the institution or those whose livelihoods are dependent on it...except their own of course. Which gets us back to them wanting to make a difference...for themselves...economically...period.

Anonymous said...

Mikey should not have mentioned thr RIF thing until he could speak with authority, he knows what the climate in Washington is regarding the funding for LANL...he's been told maore than once that the Institution is in trouble, both from internal strife as well as external sources...Why he chose to make that statement may haunt him in this time of un-certian budgets, not to say anything about his credibility at a very critical time.