By John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
When retired federal nuclear weapons program manager Everet Beckner went before a congressional committee in March, his premise was clear.
"The budget's getting smaller," Beckner said.
The question, Beckner explained to members of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, is how to maintain the complex of labs and plants needed to take care of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the face of such budgetary reality.
The answer federal officials come up with is of particular interest in New Mexico. With two nuclear weapons laboratories, the state receives more nuclear weapons money than any other state. Last year's amount was $2.7 billion.
The expected release this week of the Obama administration's full budget request for 2010 should provide the first detailed picture of how the new president's national security team hopes to answer Beckner's question.
Administration officials declined to comment in advance of the budget rollout, but congressional testimony, interviews with independent experts and a review of public comments by administration officials suggests a budget aimed at significantly reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile while expanding spending on nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
But the details of how that budget direction might affect Sandia and Los Alamos national labs, which together employ more than 20,000 New Mexicans, remain unclear.
At the top of the list of questions is the fate of a proposed $2 billion plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos. It would replace the lab's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building, built nearly six decades ago and declared a hazard to workers and the public by federal safety auditors.
Thomas D'Agostino, director of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told Congress on March 17 that replacing the old CMR building was "critical" for maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons. But questions have been raised in Congress about whether the project is needed as the U.S. nuclear stockpile shrinks.
The project's $2 billion price tag is also likely to be in competition with two other expensive nuclear weapons projects, Beckner noted in his testimony at the same hearing.
D'Agostino's agency also wants a new building complex in Tennessee to work with uranium nuclear weapons parts and a facility in South Carolina to help dispose of plutonium from retired nuclear weapons.
It is unlikely that all three projects, each costing in excess of $2 billion, can be built simultaneously, given the financial constraints facing the nuclear weapons program, Beckner said.
"The budget cannot swallow those three projects as presently aligned," Beckner told members of Congress.
Speaking at a news conference April 10, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said a decision about how to proceed on the new plutonium laboratory would have to wait until after completion of the Nuclear Posture Review, a Pentagon study of the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and the weapons' role in national security policy.
"I think the best thing to do is, let's wait for the Nuclear Posture Review," Chu told reporters while visiting Sandia National Laboratories.
Another thing to look for in the coming budget release is how the new administration approaches maintaining the labs' base of scientific expertise as nuclear weapons spending declines, said Raymond Jeanloz, a University of California nuclear weapons expert who frequently serves as an adviser to the federal government.
"To what degree and in what ways will the labs be diversifying their portfolios?" Jeanloz asked in an interview.
Jeanloz also noted that the upcoming budget debates will take place in a changing Congress. Two New Mexico Republicans who had expertise in the weapons program — Pete Domenici and Heather Wilson — are gone this year. Domenici retired from the Senate, and Wilson gave up her House seat in an unsuccessful attempt to replace Domenici.
In addition, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., who represents Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has been nominated to a position in the State Department. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who represents the district that includes the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation, has announced plans to step down next year to run for governor.
Collectively, the departure of those four members represents a loss of significant congressional expertise on nuclear weapons issues, Jeanloz said.
"I think that's hugely important," he said.