Of the Journal
Ben Ray Luján looks at Los Alamos National Laboratory and sees tremendous promise.
"We have an incredible brain trust in Los Alamos that we have to protect," Luján said in an interview Wednesday, a week after his election to represent Los Alamos and much of Northern New Mexico in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Luján ticked off a list of programs he thinks are important — nuclear non-proliferation, cyber security, better ways of storing energy, computer modeling of the U.S. energy grid and study of the spread of infectious diseases. Those programs need the government's support in order to flourish, Luján said.
Notably absent from Luján's list was the design of U.S. nuclear weapons and the manufacture of their explosive plutonium cores — work that makes up 67 percent of the lab's $2 billion-plus annual budget. And therein lies the dilemma. Because as New Mexicans look at the future of two of their largest employers, Los Alamos and Sandia national labs, there are wishes and there are harsh realities ahead.
The wishes involve new, expanding missions beyond the nuclear weapons work that has sustained the two labs since they were founded in the 1940s. Energy is the most often mentioned alternative. The harsh reality is that nuclear weapons remain at the core of what both labs do, and nuclear weapons face an uncertain future.
"People are already writing lots of articles out here about how the defense budget is going to take a big hit," said David Culp, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a peace group.
While the federal purse strings are likely to be clamped tight, Culp notes that there is at least one striking exception. The Obama administration, Culp said, "is clearly going to dump huge amounts of money" on energy research. The question is how much of that Los Alamos and Sandia will be able to get.
January 2009 will bring change for the labs on two fronts.
The first is the inauguration of a new president, and the process that will follow as the Obama administration articulates a nuclear weapons policy that is at this point largely undefined.
Of more immediate importance is the retirement of Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who as a senior Senate appropriator has long been the labs' fiscal guardian angel.
In recent years, that has involved an annual battle with a House of Representatives bent on cutting the nuclear weapons budget. Last summer, for example, the House voted to cut an estimated $300 million from Los Alamos' budget and another $60 million from Sandia's for the 2008-09 fiscal year. Domenici counter-punched, and in the end the fight was halted when Congress failed to pass an '08-09 budget, opting instead when the new fiscal year began Oct. 1 to continue spending at last year's levels through at least March.
What happens after that is anyone's guess. It appears unlikely that the current Congress will finish a March-through-October 2009 budget. That means the first set of decisions about the labs' financial future will be made by a Domenici-less Congress and an Obama administration.
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised $150 billion over 10 years for renewable energy, and lab backers hope some of that money can flow into Los Alamos and Sandia.
But those within the federal energy establishment point to reasons why the potential may be less than New Mexico labs' backers hope.
Sandia and Los Alamos are just two among 21 Energy Department labs and research centers. Many have stood on the sidelines watching while Sandia and Los Alamos saw their nuclear weapons budgets grow, and will likely think that it is their turn now. More importantly, other labs — most notably the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado — already specialize in the sort of work the Obama administration wants to fund.
Los Alamos and Sandia may be able to get a small piece of the action, one knowledgeable insider told me, partly by partnering with other energy research centers. But it is unrealistic to expect expanded energy funding to make up for any declines in nuclear weapons spending.