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Los Alamos National Laboratory may get boost in nuclear funding

Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos National Laboratory/Released)

Los Alamos National Laboratory will get a hefty funding boost — including for its work on plutonium pit production — in the military spending bill held up by a presidential veto.

Many predict the veto will be overridden, and if it is, the lab’s budget will increase to $3.3 billion from the $2.3 billion allocated last year.

The bill puts $837 million into the lab’s plutonium operations, more than double the previous year’s $308 million, as Los Alamos pursues production of 30 nuclear bomb cores by 2026 — a goal critics have questioned.

Plans call for the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to make an additional 50 plutonium pits by 2030, so the two facilities will produce a combined 80 pits per year as stated in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

The Pentagon and the White House have said they want to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal, which includes adding at least one new warhead, to deter Russia, China, Iran and other potential adversaries that are improving their first-strike capabilities.

Watchdog groups call the Trump administration’s more aggressive push to bolster the nuclear stockpile hawkish and unsustainable, and expressed uncertainty about how much the incoming Biden administration might pull back.

“It’s very hard to tell and we do not know,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, a lab watchdog.

Under Biden, Congress may reassess the National Nuclear Security Administration’s push to ramp up pit production to see whether it’s really possible for the agency to do everything it wants so quickly, Mello said.

Tom Clements, executive director of SRS Watch, another watchdog group, said the 2021 budget will have to be carried out, and it will take time for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to draft a new nuclear posture review.

But Biden is likely to examine the nuclear modernization program in the coming months, including whether it’s feasible to convert Savannah River’s unfinished mixed-oxide fuel plant into a pit factory, Clements said.

“There are growing signs that the SRS pit plant is gonna get a thorough review by the new administration,” Clements said.

About $481 million is earmarked for Savannah River’s pit operations, Clements said, adding he’s not sure where half of that money will go.

The nuclear weapons’ budget is part of the $740 billion military spending bill President Donald Trump vetoed last week, in part because he objected to a bipartisan provision to rename bases honoring Confederate leaders.

The House voted 322-87 to override Trump’s veto, well within the two-thirds margin required. The GOP-controlled Senate is expected to follow suit because of the strong bipartisan backing of the defense spending bill — which would hand Trump the first rejected veto of his presidency.

One New Mexico senator who is a strong advocate of the Los Alamos lab, pit production and the military lambasted Trump.

“This is another dangerous move by President Trump to put his own interests ahead of the country’s,” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich said. “President Trump needs to stop trying to burn the place down on his way out the door if he ever wants to be remembered as anything other than a tyrant.”

In all, about $1.1 billion will be spent to help Los Alamos meet its pit production goals. Aside from money for operations, the budget will funnel $57 million to improving the plutonium facility, and $37 million will be spent on new transuranic liquid waste handling.

About $169 million will go toward replacing the outdated Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building.

“The bill also includes critical new cyber authorities we need now to protect our networks against the type of devastating attacks we have seen in the past weeks,” Heinrich said.

Funding to clean up legacy waste generated during the Cold War and Manhattan Project has been fully restored to $220 million, Heinrich said. Trump had sought to trim $100 million from the cleanup budget.

Mello said he remains doubtful the aging plutonium facility that never produced more than a dozen pits in a year can be upgraded to crank out 30-plus pits yearly, no matter how much money is spent.

“There’s a question of whether Los Alamos will ever be able to do so safely,” Mello said.


(c) 2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican

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