Los Alamos faces a grim future as political allies fade away

With hundreds of jobs about to disappear from his district, Rep. Ben Luján (D-N.M.) spoke with a quavering voice.

It was the beginning of March, and a few days earlier Los Alamos National Laboratory had stunned northern New Mexico by announcing a round of buyouts. The message from Charlie MacMillan, the laboratory's director, asked 400 to 800 employees to step forward and take severance packages, sparing everyone the unpleasantness of layoffs.

One of the main reasons was the budget plan that President Obama had unveiled a month earlier.

Under intense pressure to cut spending, the White House had conducted triage at the Department of Energy and decided to save money by delaying the largest construction project in New Mexico history: a facility at Los Alamos, estimated to cost up to $5.8 billion, where staff would study, store and process plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

All told, the administration was planning to give Los Alamos $300 million less than it had received from the federal government two years earlier. Other laboratories were looking at budget increases. So there sat Luján, the 40-year-old scion of a powerful New Mexico political family, pleading with Energy Secretary Steven Chu to stop the bleeding.


"It looks like Los Alamos took a much greater hit than any of the other labs, and quite honestly, almost as much as the other labs combined," Luján said from the dais of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. "Mr. Secretary, what I'm looking for is some assurance and some long-term commitment."

Los Alamos has heavily relied on Congress ever since World War II, when the federal government built the laboratory to aid in the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic bomb.

Even the local high school was built with money from the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to DOE. Today the laboratory is still the only real industry in town, bringing in about 80 percent of tax revenue, Sharon Stover, chairwoman of the Los Alamos County Council, said during an interview earlier this year.

Most people in Los Alamos did not notice when the work on the plutonium plant stopped, because the now-empty construction site is in a section of the laboratory that was put off-limits to the public after Sept. 11, 2001. But they saw the immediate ripples: a downtown revitalization plan was scaled back, and a plan to build a wading pool at a local recreation center was scrapped.

"We were told in December that this was the No. 1 security issue in the nation," Stover said, referring to the plutonium complex. "And then, to find out that those dollars were taken away? We still don't understand what took place."

Her constituents were not alone. Budget cuts also rattled Livermore, Calif., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., where the DOE laboratories that bear the names of their hometowns also faced budget cuts for nuclear facilities. But it was a new feeling for Los Alamos, which steadily grew into one of the federal government's largest research complexes as Congress funded visions of limitless nuclear energy and of weapons so powerful they could end the era of conventional warfare.

The laboratory has routinely been a winner in congressional budget battles, even during the 1990s, the last time Republicans swept to power in Congress and pressured a Democratic president to cut spending. People worried back then, too.

"When the lab sniffles, the rest of the community gets pneumonia," Fred Brueggeman, then the community development director for Los Alamos County, told The New York Times in 1995.

The sniffles didn't last long; the laboratory's budget is now about twice what it was then. But there is a sense this year's cuts might stick, in large part because New Mexico is losing the congressional clout that has kept its laboratories flush with cash since the 1940s and helped the state to routinely receive twice as many federal dollars as its residents pay in taxes.

Los Alamos long had the steadfast support of lawmakers such as former Sen. Pete Domenici, the Republican from Albuquerque who rose to become chairman of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

He remains an influential advocate of nuclear power in Washington, but observers say his absence in Congress has made it harder to fend off complaints from auditors and watchdog groups. Critics of the nuclear weapons complex hope it means that the laboratory's luck is finally running out.

"This is almost a new era," said Peter Stockton, a senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight who worked as an adviser to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) during Richardson's stint as secretary of Energy to President Clinton. (Richardson was another prominent patron to Los Alamos; before joining the Cabinet, he had Luján's job, representing the congressional district that includes the laboratory.)

Nuclear proliferation watchdogs have spent years arguing that there is no need to spend billions of dollars making more plutonium "pits" for warheads because the United States already has many more than it needs to maintain its arsenal. It now seems that the White House and Congress are holding firm on that conclusion as well, Stockton said.

Then again, he thought that in the past, and Los Alamos ended up with more taxpayer dollars anyway.

"I've been shocked before," he said.

During the March hearing where Luján made his worries known, Chu said that tough choices had to be made when crafting DOE's budget. Several other members of Congress took Chu to task over cuts in their districts that day, and after the hearing, the former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in Berkeley, Calif., told Greenwire that he understood why: They were simply standing up for their constituents.

The next day, Luján's congressional office sent a press release and posted a video of his exchange with Chu on the lawmaker's website.

Nothing changed. The buyouts went forward. Later that month, 557 employees took the money from Los Alamos and said their goodbyes.

'Dysfunctional and untouchable'

Last year, workers were busy clearing the construction site at Los Alamos. The laboratory hadn't put any steel in the ground because it was still considering a couple of different designs, but there was no reason to think the money would dry up.

After the White House made the decision to wait five years on the plutonium plant, which has already cost about $425 million, the laboratory stopped work at the site on Pajarito Road. It put all of its remaining money toward design, just in case, said Toni Chiri, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration site office in Los Alamos.

"We wanted to do as much of the design as we could with the money that we had and have that [design] available for future use," Chiri said during an interview.

Across the entire laboratory, federal spending on Los Alamos peaked in fiscal 2011 at nearly $2.2 billion, but the budget has now fallen below $2 billion for fiscal 2013. The laboratory could lose even more money if automatic cuts take place at the end of the year, and the plutonium plant will get nothing at all unless Congress changes its tune.

Luján, a native of New Mexico whose father was the speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, has tried to reverse the trend. He passed an amendment that will study ways to give Los Alamos a broader mission beyond nuclear weapons and voted against the automatic cuts because of their effect on the labs, his spokesman Andrew Stoddard wrote in an email yesterday.

"There is concern that should the sequester take effect there could be additional cuts to jobs and programs," Stoddard wrote.

Luján, along with New Mexico's senators, also managed to persuade the administration to use the $120 million set aside for the plutonium plant in fiscal 2012 to fund other projects at Los Alamos rather than send the money elsewhere. But they are defending against something that likely would never have happened a decade or two ago, when the New Mexico delegation routinely resisted budget cuts and steered funding to its laboratories.

That money paid for more than research. From a post on the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, Domenici inserted $35 million in earmarks into the budget to endow the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, which was founded in 1997.

Domenici retired in 2008, but the charity lives on and still gives out scholarships to college-bound seniors from the area. Seven of these scholarships, worth $10,000 apiece, bear Domenici's name.

Supporters of the laboratory will concede that New Mexico lawmakers simply don't have that kind of power today.

"We've had tremendous support from the delegation, but they have to work themselves up to a seniority level," said Stover, the Los Alamos County Council chairwoman.

Guarding the Los Alamos budget wasn't always an easy job. Anti-nuclear activists had a target drawn on the laboratory, and a series of high-profile security breaches and embarrassing audits made things worse.

In 1999, the laboratory made national headlines when a federal grand jury indicted scientist Wen Ho Lee of stealing nuclear secrets to pass them to the Chinese. Five years later, Los Alamos employees were thought to have lost three separate sets of computer discs that contained classified information (Greenwire, July 20, 2004).

Investigators ended up being unable to prove the charges against Lee and only charged him with improperly handling sensitive data. They also paid a hefty settlement to Lee for their handling of the case. And in a second embarrassing revelation five years later, investigators concluded that the missing computer disks had never existed.

These sorts of management flaws left lasting damage. Domenici wrote a letter to the people of Los Alamos in the summer of 2004, warning that a laboratory once seen as a "crown jewel of science" was gaining a reputation as "dysfunctional and untouchable."

"I have found myself increasingly defending the laboratory for failures of basic management; human resources policies, procurement, project management, inventory control, and security," he wrote. "While critics have carped, I have worked to ensure that none of the attacks harmed the laboratory, but that effort has come at great cost.

"As the proudest defender of the laboratory," the letter went on to say, "I can tell you that the defense can no longer be sustained unless the laboratory changes."

Funding for Los Alamos continued to rise after that incident, and when the Senate changed hands in 2006, Domenici handed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee gavel to another New Mexico senator, Democrat Jeff Bingaman. Bingaman still leads the panel, but he plans to retire at the end of the year.

Unless committee assignments change next year, New Mexico will be left without a single member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, House Energy and Commerce Committee, Senate Appropriations Committee or House Appropriations Committee, the four congressional panels that lay out most of DOE's tasks and parcel out funding for its network of laboratories.

There were already warning signs for the laboratory this year. Government auditors and anti-nuclear activists had complained about the ever-growing price tag of the plutonium project, which was slated in 2004 to cost $660 million but is now estimated to cost $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion.

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said Los Alamos will shrink under the recent cuts but only compared with a fiscal 2011 budget that was the largest in the laboratory's history. He said the cancellation of the plutonium facility is still a sign that the laboratory's main mission -- nuclear weapons -- isn't as relevant as it used to be.

"The current delegation doesn't have the power that Domenici had. That definitely has a lot to do with how the sausage gets made, to use the old cliché, but it's not all-determining," he said. "What I would really point to is the fact that there is not a clear need, an overwhelming programmatic need."

So far, Congress has held the line on the cuts to Los Alamos.

One congressman -- Rep. Mike Turner, a Republican from Dayton, Ohio -- tried to amend the budget to fund the plutonium project, but his proposal failed. In both the House and Senate, the appropriations committees agreed with the White House and zeroed out funding for the plutonium project.

No one from New Mexico was on either committee to protest.



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