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Nuclear buildup could mean work for labs in NM

Los Alamos National Laboratory

LANL

By REBECCA MOSS | The Santa Fe New Mexican (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 3, 2018

Significant and sustained investments in personnel and funding at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories are among a number of priorities outlined by the Trump administration Friday in an updated policy approach for how the United States will develop and potentially deploy nuclear weapons.

A potential spike in funding would likely funnel into New Mexico's laboratories, where Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories are collectively among the highest-funded nuclear weapons sites in the nation, with New Mexico raking in around $5 billion from the U.S. Energy Department annually – roughly $1 billion more than any other state.

The Nuclear Posture Review, released Friday, calls the nuclear weapons labs and plants consistently underfunded and outlines ongoing investments needed in aging laboratory buildings and infrastructure, an increasing lab workforce and the funding needed to develop a stockpile of 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030.

The grapefruit-sized plutonium cores create the fission reaction that triggers a nuclear bomb, and Los Alamos is currently restarting work to produce them at its plutonium facility. The National Nuclear Security Administration also is considering moving at least some of this work to South Carolina.

New Mexico's U.S. senators and local nuclear critics agreed the Trump administration posture largely is an extension of long-standing U.S. nuclear weapons policies, with a few caveats.

"The Nuclear Posture Review continues the Obama strategy of modernization," Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a statement, "but I am concerned that the Trump administration favors impulse over strategy and may blur the lines between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. This is especially concerning given the White House's provocations toward North Korea and talk of a preemptive military strike."

"The scientists and engineers at the national labs have a critical mission to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the nation's nuclear stockpile, and the necessary modernization work that is already underway ..." said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a member of the subcommittee that oversees funding for the NNSA. "I will review this NPR, but I believe the world would be safer with fewer nuclear weapons and that our focus should be on negotiating treaties to reduce the number of weapons and prevent nuclear proliferation."

The Obama administration's nuclear posture, released in 2010, also called for modernizing nuclear facilities, nuclear weapons and "investing in human capital," but it asserted the world should aspire to be free of nuclear weapons entirely.

The new nuclear posture, in contrast, cites a more unstable geopolitical climate and the need to match capacity in Russia and China to create more "flexible" capabilities – terminology many said could propel the U.S. into a new arms race.

The nuclear posture also outlines the unprecedented use of nuclear weapons in response to a nonnuclear attack and emphasizes the potential use of "low-yield" nuclear weapons, which the administration says would provide a different range and would improve readiness and "survivability." Nuclear critics dispute this and say it could increase the likelihood of expanding the use of nuclear weapons.

"What this means for Northern New Mexico is unnecessary plutonium pit production for unneeded new nuclear weapons designs in an escalating arms race," said Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. "That will inevitably bring more contamination and safety problems."

Just from the U.S. Defense Department budget, funding for nuclear weapons would amount to a 3.7 percent increase, or 6.4 percent within the next decade – the highest levels since the end of the Cold War.

Based on a leaked draft of the nuclear posture, 16 Democratic U.S. senators, including senators from Washington, California and Illinois, wrote to President Donald Trump on Monday that his nuclear policy would "increase the risk of a nuclear arms race and raise the real possibility of a nuclear conflict."

"We strongly urge you to reconsider," they wrote.

New Mexico's Democratic senators did not sign the letter.

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(c)2018 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
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