Saturday, September 29, 2007
LANL's Future In Weapons At Center of Fight
By John Fleck
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
Should Los Alamos National Laboratory someday become the nation's
"permanent" plutonium bomb manufacturing center?
That is one of the major policy questions behind the fight currently
under way in Congress over the lab's budget.
The House of Representatives has passed a spending plan for fiscal 2008
with big cuts to the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Members of the Senate are
While much of the public attention surrounding proposed cuts to Los
Alamos' budget has focused on the potential for big staff cuts at the
Northern New Mexico lab— as many as 2,500 jobs may be at stake— big policy
differences lurk behind the budget fight.
The biggest share of the cuts the House wants to make at Los Alamos—
roughly $200 million— are targeted at plutonium manufacturing.
An alternative Senate spending plan, touted as a way to save Los Alamos
jobs, would restore nearly all of that money.
"This is obviously much more than a jobs issue," said Greg Mello, head
of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, an anti-nuclear weapons
Uncertainty over plutonium manufacturing at Los Alamos has lingered
unresolved for 15 years, since the Rocky Flats bomb plant in Colorado was
During the Cold War, Los Alamos made only a small number of pits for
research and testing. But with Rocky Flats closed, Los Alamos has been the
only place in the country capable of making pits.
In the years since, the federal agencies in charge of Los Alamos have
repeatedly tried and failed to build a Rocky Flats replacement.
Simultaneously, they have been upgrading Los Alamos' ability to manufacture
small numbers of bomb parts.
Los Alamos' plutonium capability has always been billed as a bridge to
the future when the Rocky Flats replacement is completed. But the latest
round of budget battles appear to have killed that project off once again.
The House's response to the uncertainty over the future of plutonium
manufacturing was to cut the budget. Otherwise, the House Energy and Water
Appropriations Subcommittee concluded in a June report, Los Alamos would end
up as the undeclared but de facto permanent plutonium manufacturing site.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., speaking at a July gathering at Los Alamos
National Laboratory, said he believes that's already happened.
The Senate, in a riposte largely engineered by Domenici, is trying to
restore the funding cut by the House.
The $200 million difference between the two plans will be one of the
largest pots of money and most significant policy differences on the table
in coming weeks as House and Senate negotiators try to hammer out a
compromise spending plan for the 2008 federal budget year.
Half the money would go to ongoing small-scale pit manufacturing work at
Los Alamos. The House subcommittee, in its June report, argued that the
spending made no sense without a clearly articulated long-term pit
The other half of the money represents a down payment on a new lab at
Los Alamos to support future plutonium manufacturing work— the Chemistry and
Metallurgy Research Replacement building.
The House subcommittee report language was blunt. The project, the
subcommittee concluded, "has no coherent mission to justify it unless the
decision is made to begin an aggressive new nuclear warhead design and pit
production mission at Los Alamos National Laboratory."
The Senate spending plan provides the funding for the new building. And
Domenici, in comments he made in July, was frank about the new lab's
importance for plutonium manufacturing. But he also argues the new plutonium
lab is important even if Los Alamos does not have the bomb-plant mission. In
a statement Friday, Domenici called the lab "integral" to work maintaining
existing nuclear weapons.
The dispute puts Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., in a difficult position. He
has been working with Domenici to block deep budget cuts at Los Alamos. But
while supporting a limited pit production mission at Los Alamos, he said he
opposes large-scale manufacturing there.
"I don't think it's appropriate for Los Alamos to become the de facto
pit production center for the entire weapons complex," he said in a recent
Bingaman's suggestion involves some funding for pit manufacturing work
now ongoing, but consideration of a delay in construction of the new
"I think having some manufacturing funding there for Los Alamos is
appropriate because that is an ongoing activity," Bingaman said.