By John Fleck And Michael Coleman, The Albuquerque Journal
The Obama administration Thursday proposed a $140 million budget cut for Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2010, a 7 percent reduction in the nuclear weapons laboratory's budget.
Sandia National Laboratories, New Mexico's other major National Nuclear Security Administration, escaped the budget knife, seeing a cut in nuclear spending but offsetting increases in energy research as the new administration shifts priorities.
The budget offers the first detailed look at the Obama administration's spending priorities. The proposal now goes to Congress, where House and Senate appropriators will have the chance to make changes before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
The total proposed Department of Energy spending in New Mexico for Sandia, Los Alamos and a number of smaller facilities is $4 billion in 2010, down from $4.3 billion this year.
The biggest portion of the Los Alamos cuts involved two major construction projects — a proposed new plutonium laboratory, and a major upgrade to the lab's neutron accelerator.
Decisions about the plutonium lab will be delayed for a year. The administration wants to kill the accelerator upgrade, officials said. But by keeping the major cuts to future construction programs, the budget leaves the lab's core scientific work force relatively unscathed.
The lab spending recommendations are part of the Department of Energy's $26 billion budget, which Energy Secretary Steven Chu unveiled at a Washington, D.C., news conference Thursday afternoon. Despite a heavy emphasis on energy research, Chu told reporters that nuclear weapons work remains an important part of his agency's mission.
“Nuclear security is still a very important part of the Department of Energy,” Chu said. “There is increasing risk of nuclear proliferation, so this budget includes (money) to work on nonproliferation. We still have to maintain our nuclear security enterprise, and coupled with Recovery Act money we're going to be accelerating dramatically the Cold War legacy cleanup.”
Nationwide, Chu's budget recommends $6.4 billion for maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons, unchanged from this year. Nuclear nonproliferation spending would be $2.1 billion, a 9.5 percent increase.
The budget also calls for $5.5 billion nationwide for nuclear cleanup, down 3 percent from this year.
Decisions on building the Los Alamos plutonium laboratory, which at $2 billion would be the largest public works project in New Mexico history, will have to wait until the Pentagon completes a review of the future needs for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Tom D'Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told reporters Thursday.
It would replace a 60-year-old lab complex that federal auditors have concluded is unsafe, but that lab officials say they must continue to use until a replacement is completed.
Design work on the replacement is under way, with a $97 million budget this year. The administration recommended cutting the budget to $55 million next year.
Critics, who argue that the project is unnecessary, said they were pleased with the delay. A shrinking nuclear arsenal will eventually eliminate the need for the building entirely, said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group.
A congressionally chartered commission on Wednesday recommended making construction of the plutonium lab a priority.
The administration also singled out the upgrade to the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center as one of a long list of wasteful programs it wanted to kill, saying in a statement that it “no longer plays a critical role in weapons research.”
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., vowed to fight that cut, saying it is not only essential for nuclear weapons work, but is also widely used for civilian science.
In general, Bingaman said he supported the budget proposal, but said he would try to reverse the neutron science cuts.
“I believe LANSCE will play a major role in the diversification of Los Alamos into new science areas, which is why I will fight to reverse this wrong-headed decision,” Bingaman said in a statement.
Sandia, which also works on nuclear weapons, fared better. Money for Sandia to work on U.S. nuclear weapons would decline under the president's proposal, but the cuts would be completely offset by increases in money for renewable energy and nuclear nonproliferation work.
Los Alamos would also have an increase in nonproliferation work, but not enough to offset the cuts in its core nuclear weapons mission. The administration did not recommend any increase in energy research spending at Los Alamos.