DOE

N.M. senator seeks wider mission for nuclear labs

The Obama administration should support the diversification of the mission and funding sources for national nuclear weapons laboratories, New Mexico's junior senator told the Energy Department today.

Democrat Tom Udall urged Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a letter to compile a vision statement for the labs that would broaden their focus from maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile to related fields such as nuclear forensics and detection technology.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) manages the nuclear labs, weapons and nonproliferation programs as an independent agency under DOE. A similar "lab vision" statement was signed by former Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman last year.

A significant part of expanding the labs' mission would involve financing new directives through multi-year agreements with other agencies, Udall said. This could provide a steady income for the labs and their scientists, instead of going contract-by-contract, and make up for a shrinking budget as the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is reduced.

"Almost all activities of the NNSA are supported fundamentally by a shrinking budget of that core mission," Udall wrote. "This has led to wide concern that the budget and mission constraints of the NNSA could lead to its being unable to provide the very necessary capabilities that are so critical to our nation."

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NNSA has already signed one "strategic partnership agreement" with the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency last December and is currently pursuing others. The labs will conduct research for the threat reduction agency on nuclear security challenges, such as the fallout from the detonation of a terrorist crude nuclear device.

A growing number of critics are urging Congress to take the nuclear weapons labs away from DOE and place them under a separate "national security" agency or under the Defense Department. The nuclear weapons mission is distracting and detracting from DOE's pressing goal to accelerate new carbon-free technology, they say. The Office of Management and Budget has directed DOE, NNSA and DOD to study the possibility of moving the labs from DOE by September.

Leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee and the chairman of the Strategic Subcommittee on the Armed Services Committee wrote a letter to OMB earlier this month rejecting the removal of the labs from DOE until the administration submits its Nuclear Posture Review next year (E&E Daily, March 19).

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