On Wednesday, I finished a two-day tour of Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories with a bipartisan group of legislators from the House of Representatives. Then, I re-read last week's New Mexican editorial condemning LANL funding and my role in increasing the lab's "lavish" spending.
The contrast between what we saw on the tour, and the views of the editorial, is stark and disturbing.
The views of the editorial and other critics of LANL can be fairly summed up this way:
* Nuclear weapons are now passé;
* Los Alamos devotes too much of its work to activities related to nuclear weapons;
* LANL has an "outdated lab mission," so the House-passed fiscal year 2008 appropriations bill that cuts funding for nuclear weapons is a good thing;
* And we need to cut funding and "re-educate" LANL's scientists away from nuclear-related work to a vague alternative energy or global warming mission.
Our tour offered the following succinct refutation of those notions:
* More nations than ever before, led by Russia's multi-billion dollar resurgent nuclear weapons program, pursue nuclear armaments;
* LANL spends only about 60 percent of its federal budget on weapons work;
* LANL's core mission — to certify that America's nuclear weapons will work if we need them — is more critical than ever;
* Thus, LANL needs more funding to carry out its certification mandate through the stockpile stewardship program, and to continue research into nanotechnology, nuclear waste cleanup, its Neutron Science Center (LANSCE), and its cutting-edge work in computer-based global climate modeling.
I believe the House-passed fiscal year 2008 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill represents a disaster for America's security and a setback for the very goals The New Mexican advocates. The House bill focuses the debate on specifics. The New Mexican is happy that the House cut LANL's fiscal year 2008 budget by 25 percent. I am not.
Let's take a moment to review where we stand in American nuclear weapons policy.
In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton and Congress decided to move to a program called Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship in order to end underground nuclear weapons testing, but still protect the integrity of our nuclear weapons capability. This new program, based on hoped-for breakthroughs in physics and computer power, was adopted with the full understanding that it would cost much more than simply staying with the old policy of underground testing.
In fact, the biggest reason for much of the increase in spending is this new stewardship policy, a policy that The New Mexican has wholeheartedly endorsed in the past. It was right to do so. The New Mexican cannot have it both ways; we must either go back to underground testing to reduce future costs, or spend the billions needed to develop the infrastructure to continue the present policy of "virtual" testing.
Not only does the House bill have the potential to cripple the stockpile stewardship program, it also:
* Eliminates funding for LANSCE, which has the potential to develop nuclear fuels for emissions-free electricity generation;
* Cuts nuclear weapons surveillance at the very time our scientists are increasingly concerned about "loose nukes";
* Cuts nuclear material cleanup, risking cleanup agreements between the Department of Energy and the state of New Mexico;
* Eliminates all funding for the Road Runner Supercomputer, a vital part of future efforts in global climate modeling based upon LANL's post-nuclear attack work in the past;
* And provides absolutely no guidance concerning what a new mission might be for LANL or any other laboratory.
The bill might please the A.Q. Khans of the world, many of whom are working right now to develop nuclear weapons for Iran, North Korea, Syria and other unstable regimes. It should not please people who are serious about America's national security.
It may be exciting to endorse legislation to "teach the labs" a lesson, or to pass declarations of "nuclear free zones," but those of us who must live and work in the real, dangerous world cannot be dilettantes.
New Mexico's Sen. Pete Domenici is ranking member of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the Department of Energy and its national laboratories.