Friday, October 12, 2007
Senator: Pressure Building On Labs
By John Fleck
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
The management and employees of New Mexico's nuclear weapons laboratories face a growing consensus in Washington that the nation's nuclear weapons budget needs to shrink, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said Thursday.
"The question is how quickly does it come down, and what is it replaced with," Bingaman said during a meeting with Journal editors.
Los Alamos and Sandia national labs got a total of $2.4 billion for nuclear weapons research, development and manufacturing in fiscal year 2007, but the two labs face threatened budget cuts in the coming year.
The Bush administration proposed a cut of 7 percent, and members of the House of Representatives are pushing for a 23 percent cut, according to an analysis by Bingaman's staff.
Bingaman said members of the state's congressional delegation hope to be able to forestall the worst of the cuts, but he said the labs need to recognize that in the long run they face a national leadership unwilling to fund nuclear weapons work at its current level.
Bingaman said the decline has been forestalled in recent years by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who has used his seniority to fight off budget cuts.
Domenici announced last week that he will retire at the end of his current term in January 2009. After 2008 New Mexico will not have a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where key spending decisions are made.
Budget cuts have been forestalled for now by Congress' inability to pass a 2008 budget. Late last month, it passed a stop-gap spending plan to allow spending to continue at 2007 levels for the first six weeks of the new fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
Congressional leadership hopes to have a final spending plan for 2008 delivered to the president by Nov. 16, Bingaman said. If not, there is a possibility the labs would continue to be funded at 2007 levels, avoiding budget cuts at least for several more months, according to Bingaman.
In a telephone news conference Tuesday, Domenici suggested that continuing for the entire year at 2007 levels might be the best solution for the labs, avoiding budget cuts for the coming year.
Bingaman acknowledged that diversification away from nuclear weapons work is harder for Los Alamos than Sandia.
Sandia is an engineering laboratory that designs and maintains electronic systems and other non-nuclear parts of bombs and warheads—expertise that is more applicable for non-weapons work, Bingaman said.
Los Alamos designs and maintains the nuclear explosives themselves—skills that don't transfer as well, making diversification harder. "I don't disagree that it is more difficult for Los Alamos," Bingaman said, "but it is possible."