Jun 12, 2007
Monday, 11 June 2007
There are a couple of different threads worth laying out in more detail in the Fiscal Year 2008 budget for the nuclear weapons labs.
* The difference in the recent fortunes of Sandia and Los Alamos, which has left Sandia much less vulnerable financially to the coming cuts.
* The gamesmanship between and among members of Congress, which suggests to me that the cuts may not be as deep as they now look.
* The overarching nuclear weapons policy implications, which are probably more important in a global sense than our parochial concerns about jobs in New Mexico.
Lab insiders already know a lot of this, but much of it has not yet been discussed out in the public domain, and is I think worth hashing out in more detail.
The thing triggering this discussion is the House Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, which goes to the full House Wednesday. It proposes a 6 percent cut in the National Nuclear Security Administration's nuclear weapons budget, and lays out a number of very specific cuts, including several at Los Alamos.
The report is the product of a collaboration between the new Democratic chair of the House Energy and Water subcommittee and the old Republican one. This is a critical point. This should not be viewed as a partisan, Democratic attempt to cut the nuclear weapons budget. It is, by all accounts, very much a bipartisan effort. Underpinning the entire approach called for in the bill is a simple concern: that the NNSA is pushing a significant number of nuclear weapons spending efforts without a clearly defined mission for our arsenal: "in a policy vacuum without any Administration statement on the national security environment that the future nuclear deterrent is designed to address."
In other words, the House committee is saying, don't tell us you need to spend billions of dollars to design and build new nuclear weapons until you tell us what those nuclear weapons are for. Everything else in the bill flows from that central point.
The bill, for example, shuts down funding for the new "Complex 2030" bomb factory plan until the "what are nukes for" policy is worked out. Likewise, it shuts down funding for the big plutonium lab at Los Alamos that goes by the name CMRR-NF (don't ask - just call it the "big plutonium lab"). ("The CMRR," the committee report states bluntly, "has no coherent mission to justify it.") Ditto money for plutonium pit manufacturing, cut nearly in half.
The bill also shuts down the Reliable Replacement Warhead design effort, based on similar arguments.
The result is a suite of budget cuts that fall heavily on Los Alamos, not so much on Sandia. How those will play out depends a lot on the next steps in Congress (see discussion of "gamesmanship" below). But it's worth reflecting for a moment on the difference between the two labs.
Over the last five years or so, Sandia management has seen this writing on a distant wall. The result is a budget that has substantially diversified away from nuclear weapons. About half Sandia's budget comes from the NNSA. Los Alamos, in contrast, gets about two thirds of its budget from NNSA. It is much more dependent on nuclear weapons, and is therefore much more hurt by cuts. In addition, Los Alamos's piece of the nuclear weapons portfolio is heavily weighted to the sort of programs under attack - plutonium work, pit manufacturing, etc.
Finally, the gamesmanship. There's a lot of "get Pete Domenici" in the bill's fine print. So the politics that plays out next will be a mix of the serious nuclear weapons policy discussion suggested by my first point above and the bare-knuckle stuff that will inevitably determine the final spending package as the Senate subcommittee prepares its own version of the bill and then the two get squished into one in the final bill that goes to the President some time this summer or fall.