Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Budget Proposal

The New Mexican
February 8, 2005
Diana Heil

The Bush Administration dished out a few surprises for the Energy Department with its Monday budget proposal.

"While there are some positive elements to this budget proposal, overall New Mexico's labs don't fare as well as I would like them to," U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a news release.

If Congress goes along with it, spending for the Energy Department would fall 2 percent to $23.4 billion.

New Mexico would see a $6 million decrease over current funding, which is at $4.5 billion.

"It's possible, even likely, that the nuclear-weapons budget may decline for the first time since 1995 in projected constant-dollar terms," according to Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group in Albuquerque.

But Mello and other anti-nuke activists aren't celebrating.

The proposed budget is streaked with "misplaced priorities," according to Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a watchdog group in Santa Fe.

Back on the table are four controversial nuclear weapons programs that Congress last year either completely cut, substantially reduced or redirected, Coghlan said. Of the increased funding, $4 million, would go toward studying "bunker busters," a new weapon that could destroy hardened, deeply buried targets.

Meanwhile, a program to stop the spread of nuclear materials throughout the world got a 15 percent increase, to $1.6 billion, a boost both senators Bingaman and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., praised.

New Mexico workers, however, may wonder what the 2006 budget proposal means for them. Some programs in the state would swell while others would shrink.

Los Alamos National Laboratory stands to gain more: $1.8 billion, up $29 million over this year.

Funding at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque would decrease to $1.381 billion. That's $121 million below what it got this year, according to Domenici.

"It's too early to speculate on what it would mean," Sandia spokesman John German said, noting that the proposed budget has a long road ahead through Congress.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad also would take a hit. The budget proposal includes $226 million for WIPP, down
$11.5 million from this year, according to Domenici.

WIPP, which accepted its first radioactive shipment in March 1999, is designed to permanently store plutonium-contaminated waste more than 2,100 feet underground in ancient salt beds.

Within the LANL budget is money for programs to stop the spread of nuclear materials in the world, make plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons, build the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility, upgrade the power infrastructure and accelerate cleanup of contamination on lab grounds.

There's also $27 million for the controversial and vastly over-budget Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility, an X-ray machine intended to produce three-dimensional images of materials during an explosion.

"Accelerated" waste cleanup at Los Alamos would receive $142 million, up $23 million from this year. The state is prepared to sign a massive environmental cleanup order with the Energy Department and Los Alamos lab. But Ron Curry, the New Mexico environment secretary, said he isn't sure what the budget means by accelerated cleanup and he plans to talk to lab Director Pete Nanos about it.

"There's a possibility that the funding the Department of Energy needs to push forward on this order could be cut," Curry said in an interview Monday.

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