Journal Staff Writers
The Bush administration Monday proposed a stable budget with no major changes for Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.
But the spending plan does make clear that the two labs, which focus on nuclear weapons, are not in line for any significant part of a major increase being proposed for some areas of U.S. government energy research.
The budget proposal for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the labs, has several programs likely to raise red flags with Congress, which last year sought to rein in the nuclear weapons program.
The administration asked for $10 million for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, which Congress in December voted to kill. The budget asks for $100 million next year for work on a new plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos.
"NNSA is continuing with projects that Congress is skeptical of," said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group in Albuquerque, an anti-nuclear weapons organization.
At Los Alamos, total Energy Department spending under the plan would be $1.84 billion, down from $1.85 billion this year. Sandia's Energy Department budget would rise from $1.4 billion to $1.43 billion.
The administration requested $5 million for a refurbishment and upgrade of the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, a machine used for materials science both inside and outside the nuclear weapons program.
The budget request acknowledges that the cost for Los Alamos' proposed plutonium replacement laboratory has ballooned substantially, to more than $2 billion. That is more than double the cost estimate given to Congress a year ago.
The budget also includes a request for $162 million for environmental cleanup at Los Alamos, and an acknowledgment that the long-range cost of cleanup work at the lab is $2.6 billion to $3.6 billion.
The budget now goes to Congress, which has the ability to modify the spending plan. The 2009 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the DOE budget for New Mexico's labs is "slightly down but not a significant reduction."
He lamented proposed cuts in nuclear nonproliferation work, much of which is done at LANL.
"I think that is shortsighted," Bingaman said. "It would seem to me that nonproliferation-related work would be a priority for the administration, given all that is going on with Iran and everywhere else."
Bingaman also said Bush's $10 million funding request for the controversial reliable replacement warhead is likely to meet resistance on Capitol Hill.
"That does surprise me," Bingaman said. "I think it's going to run into the same resistance this year as it did last year."
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the budget was fair to the labs but will certainly be altered by Congress.
"This budget overall is good for the labs and should work to put them on stable footing," Domenici said.
The proposal calls for a cut in spending at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste disposal site near Carlsbad, drawing a rebuke from Domenici.
"The budget for WIPP is unacceptable and will compromise the transportation and disposal of defense wastes from around the DOE nuclear weapons complex," Domenici said.
Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., complained about the nonproliferation cut and called the proposal "just a starting point for negotiations."