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Military spending bill would give Los Alamos National Laboratory record budget

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

The U.S. Senate has approved an $858 billion military spending bill that will funnel a record $1.6 billion to Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium operations to aid in the lab’s effort to ramp up production of nuclear bomb cores.

Plans call for the lab to produce 30 nuclear warhead triggers, known as pits, by 2026, and for Savannah River Site in South Carolina to make an additional 50 pits by the mid-2030s.

Funding for that work has escalated steadily in recent years. The 2023 request for Los Alamos is almost 60 percent higher than this year’s $1 billion and about nine times the $308 million budgeted three years ago. To aid Savannah River, lawmakers added $500 million more than the Biden administration initially asked for, pushing its funding for plutonium operations to $2.9 billion.

The National Defense Authorization Act, the yearly defense budget request, has passed both chambers and will head to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it. The bill includes $4.6 billion overall to fund the lab, a sizable increase from its current $4 billion budget. Funding included in the National Defense Authorization Act will be part of an omnibus appropriations package expected to be voted on in the next week. An appropriations bill is required to ratify the funding, but it generally passes without any substantial changes to the proposed spending.

“With four military installations and two national laboratories, New Mexico plays a vital role in maintaining our national security, and this legislation will further our state’s impact,” U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján said in a statement.

Luján, D-N.M., said the bill also includes his amendment to develop the lab’s workforce, which is needed to support its mission.

The bill also authorizes a 4.6 percent pay raise for service members, improves their access to housing and child care services and builds on the military justice reforms enacted last year, including independent oversight of sexual assault cases, Luján said.

In an email, an anti-nuclear activist expressed skepticism that the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees nuclear weapons program, can get the Los Alamos lab to meet its pit production goal.

“NNSA cannot at present say when it [the lab] will produce pits, or how many pits it can produce, or what the effort will end up costing,” wrote Greg Mello, executive director of Los Alamos Study Group.

Pentagon leaders, nuclear security officials and some politicians say the pits are needed to modernize the arsenal so it will act as a stronger deterrent against Russia, China and rogue states that otherwise might act rashly with their weapons.

But Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, contends that making new pits is as much about arming new warheads being developed, such as the W93, which will be launched by submarines.

The Biden administration didn’t ask for any money for the W93, but lawmakers budgeted $45 million for the missile and warhead, Coghlan said. The W93 is important to the lab, which designed it and will produce the pits for it, he said.

“That is an item that’s going to have a lot of influence on LANL’s future,” Coghlan said.

The bill will provide $22.3 billion for the nuclear security agency’s activities. And it will allocate $286 million for the lab’s cleanup program.

The bill also authorizes spending in New Mexico that includes:

* $15 million for the high speed test track at Holloman Air Force Base

* $3.6 million for a missile assembly building at White Sands Missile Range

* $8 million for a munitions storage area at Cannon Air Force Base

* $2 million for the ADAL Systems and Digital Engineering Lab at Kirtland Air Force Base

* $540,000 for the explosives operations building at Kirtland

* $4.7 million for Kirtland’s Joint Navigational Warfare Center

* $4.4 million for the Space Rapid Capabilities Office’s facility at Kirtland

* $600,000 for the New Mexico Army National Guard’s vehicle maintenance shop in Rio Rancho.

The bill will also fund some infrastructure improvements.

“It includes provisions that I secured to bolster our water infrastructure to ensure our communities have water that is safe to drink and use,” Luján said.


(c) 2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican

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