ABQ Journal North, Thursday, June 21, 2007
By Raam Wong - Journal Staff Writer
Repeated security breeches at Los Alamos National Laboratory are making it difficult to protect the lab from congressional budget cuts, Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said Wednesday during a "telephone town hall" meeting with constituents.
"There's a real hostility about these security breeches," said Udall, who addressed nearly 500 northern New Mexico residents on a conference call from his Capitol Hill office.
That hostility was underscored earlier in the day as the House debated a spending bill that would cut as much as $300 million from LANL's nuclearweapons budget next year, likely leading to hundreds of job losses.
Udall's attempt to roll back part of those cuts failed on the House floor. Udall tried to amend the bill to add $192 million for Los Alamos, but was rebuffed in a 312-121 vote.
Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, said: "I would argue our national security would be improved by cutting 1,800 jobs from a facility that can't seem to manage sensitive information."
Many House lawmakers argue that the Energy Department needs a post-Cold War strategy before it gets money for the kind of new generation of warheads that the Bush administration is seeking. Those weapons potentially could be built at LANL.
Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., also tried unsuccessfully to persuade her colleagues to restore nuclear weapons funding, saying cuts in funding for maintaining nuclear weapons amount to "unilateral disarmament."
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. said in a statement that he was disappointed by the House's rejection of Udall's amendment.
"The fact is that the House plan represents a seismic shift in American nuclear weapons policy with national and international implications," he said.
Final action on the spending bill will not come until July, but a series of votes Tuesday and Wednesday left the nuclear weapons cut intact.
Udall said during the evening conference call that some of the cuts could be reversed when the House bill is reconciled in conference committee with the Senate's version, which the Senate is expected to take up as soon as next week.
Either way, Udall said the definition of national security should be broadened to include nuclear nonproliferation and energy independence.
"LANL can help us meet this challenge," Udall said during brief opening remarks.
Afterward, he opened the call to questions, telling the first participant: "This is Tom Udall. Fire away with your question."
Many of the call's participants supported Udall's vision for moving the lab toward new energy research.
"For the first time I think there's a distinct possibility that LANL's missions could change," said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and a longtime opponent of nuclear weapons.
But there were some questions about where the funding for new research would come from and whether the lab's new management, Los Alamos National Security, would get behind a broader mission.
Udall said LANL director Michael Anastasio has indicated support for diversification. And he noted that the energy and water funding bill now on the House floor contains $600 million for new energy research.
"LANL should have the ability to compete for that money," Udall said.
Udall addressed other concerns at the lab. The congressman said he'll continue to prod the lab to support the region's small-business community- particularly in the wake of scores of contract worker layoffs. He also noted the rocky relations between LANL and the state Environment Department over a cleanup agreement at the lab.
Billed as a "tele-town hall," the event was aimed at having a give-and-take with the LANL community. Udall's office made automated phone calls Tuesday and Wednesday evening inviting residents in Los Alamos County, Española and other parts of northern New Mexico to participate.
Thirteen people asked questions, while the remainder were given the option of leaving a voice mail for Udall.
The call also featured opinion polls in which respondents indicated their feelings on a matter by pressing a number on their phone. Ninety-four percent of respondents in one of the polls said they found the call useful.
Udall said he was pleased, adding, "If we can do all our government work where we got 94 percent approval, that would be something special."
Journal staff writer John Fleck and The Associated Press contributed to this report.