Monday, December 17, 2007
By John Fleck
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
Members of Congress cut a deal late Sunday that will hold the line against deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear weapons budget, while canceling work on a new nuclear warhead.
The $30.9 billion Energy and Water appropriations bill should help Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, among New Mexico's largest employers, avoid further job cuts beyond those already under way, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said in a telephone interview Sunday evening.
The bill includes $6.3 billion for the core nuclear weapons program in 2008, $22 million above the program's 2007 funding level.
That is a big boost from a preliminary congressional plan, passed by the House of Representatives in June, that would have cut the weapons program by $400 million, with the potential for thousands of job cuts at the labs.
"It's not a great deal," Domenici said of the final budget compromise, adding that it is far better than last summer's House-passed spending levels.
In the horse trading that led up to the deal, lab supporters traded away one of their jewels— the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a program to design a new nuclear weapon that lab supporters had viewed as the centerpiece of the U.S. nuclear arsenal of the future.
Lawrence Livermore had taken the lead on designing the new nuclear weapon, with Los Alamos expected to get the job of designing a second companion warhead.
Arms control advocates have condemned the project, saying that the United States does not need new nuclear weapons and that the work sends a dangerous message to the rest of the world at a time when the U.S. is trying to curb the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran.
The bill also cuts funding for nuclear weapons manufacturing at Los Alamos but increases spending at Los Alamos to dismantle plutonium parts from discarded nuclear weapons.
The bill is part of a mammoth federal spending package hammered out by congressional negotiators over the weekend. It still needs approval from both the House and Senate this week before it goes to President Bush for approval. Domenici said there would be intense Republican pressure on the president to sign the bill.
The final spending package provides some sense of certainty for the labs, which have been operating under the threat of budget cuts since the House passed its preliminary spending package in June.
"I would like to thank the New Mexico delegation for its work on the omnibus bill, and in particular Senator Domenici for his leadership and support for the Laboratory," Los Alamos Director Michael Anastasio said in a statement Sunday evening.
The budgets of Sandia and Los Alamos total more than $4 billion per year, with $2.4 billion of that coming from the nuclear weapons program.
The two labs employ more than 20,000 people in New Mexico, and the possibility of deep cuts has left lab workers uncertain about their futures.
Los Alamos is in the midst of cutting 500 to 750 jobs, in part because of the budget problems. Sandia announced last week it might need to lay off 65 workers this year. Domenici said the bill approved this weekend should prevent the need for deeper cuts.
Members of the arms control community argue that the spending bill is about more than lab jobs. Important nuclear weapons policy questions are also at stake, including how much should be spent on designing and building new nuclear weapons.
In particular, the future of plutonium bomb component manufacture at Los Alamos was one of the central items in the budget debate.
As details of the deal emerged Sunday evening, it got a cautious reception from the arms control community.
"It's an important symbolic victory to end the (Reliable Replacement Warhead) program," said Greg Mello, head of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, an organization that had worked to curtail weapons program spending in the final bill.
The bill also cuts $66 million from the Los Alamos budget for nuclear weapons manufacturing, another victory for arms control advocates.
But Mello noted the budget includes a $75 million down payment on a new plutonium lab at Los Alamos that could ultimately cost more than a billion dollars and that could serve a central role in future nuclear weapons manufacturing at the New Mexico lab.
That sets the stage for the new warhead design effort to be revived in some new form, Mello said.
Domenici agreed, saying he expected the Reliable Replacement Warhead or something like it to re-emerge "sooner rather than later."
Domenici said he believes his congressional colleagues misunderstood the warhead project. "People are going to have to get exposed to what it is in the Congress, instead of what they think it is," he said.