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Final defense budget nearly doubles spending on pit production

The U.S. House on Wednesday passed a military spending bill that could pump $712 million into weapons-grade plutonium operations, with the aim of having Los Alamos National Laboratory and a South Carolina site produce a combined 80 nuclear cores per year by 2026, a target that critics and some federal agencies call unrealistic.

The National Defense Authorization Act — the proposed $738 billion defense budget for 2020 — would funnel roughly $2.7 billion to Los Alamos National Laboratory. That includes $253 million to process plutonium and produce pits, the grapefruit-sized cores that detonate nuclear warheads.

The bill, which passed the House on a 377-48 bipartisan vote, is expected to sail through the Senate by early next week and go to President Donald Trump to sign.

The Pentagon and Trump administration want to boost the country’s nuclear arsenal in response to what military leaders say is a growing threat from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea improving their first-strike capabilities.

Trump’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a document outlining the nation’s nuclear strategy, calls for LANL to produce at least 30 plutonium pits per year by 2030 and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to make 50 pits per year. That’s a step up from the Obama administration wanting the two sites to be able to manufacture 50 to 80 pits per year by 2030.

The target date has since been shortened to 2026 for the Los Alamos lab to make 30 pits annually that are suitable for weapons.

Watchdog groups have lambasted what they say is a hawkish administration trying to launch a post-Cold War arms race that Los Alamos, with its aging facilities and ongoing safety and operational problems, is not equipped to handle.

“The Russians have a pit factory and we do not, and that’s what this is all about,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group. “It’s a competition with Russia. But we don’t need to cram more pit production in a 40-year-old building with a lot of problems. Los Alamos is the wrong place.”

A lab spokesman said officials are committed to the goal of producing 30 pits per year by 2026 and remain confident that goal is achievable.

Some House members sought to spend less on pit production and limit the plutonium work to Los Alamos.

But the Senate’s proposal to put $712 million toward making Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site capable of making pits for nuclear weapons won out. It nearly doubles the $362 million allocated for pit operations in 2019.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, whose district includes Los Alamos, applauded all the funding authorized for the lab.

“Los Alamos National Laboratory is an integral part of the local economy by employing thousands of New Mexicans and supporting small businesses across the state,” Luján said Wednesday in a statement. The spending bill passed by the House recognizes the essential role the lab plays in national defense, he added.

New Mexico’s senators have said that funding the lab and pit production for the nuclear stockpile is important for national security.

“The senators support Los Alamos National Laboratory’s national security role … while maintaining the highest level of worker and community safety,” the offices of Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich said Wednesday in a joint statement.

However, the senators have “significant concerns” about the Department of Energy’s efforts to split the plutonium work between Los Alamos and South Carolina, “an additional level of complication that will make safety and oversight more challenging and cost taxpayers twice as much,” the statement said.

Udall recently said in news reports that he would prefer Los Alamos to be the sole site producing pits for nuclear warheads. If Savannah River produces pits, all the plutonium waste would go to New Mexico’s storage site without any of the economic benefits.

But Mello contends Udall, Heinrich, Luján and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham all have indicated they are open to Los Alamos cranking out more than 30 pits if possible.

Udall’s office didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions on whether the senators want Los Alamos to produce more than 30 pits.

An Energy Department budget plan calls for annual funding increases to propel Los Alamos toward the 30-pit target, climbing to more than $1 billion in 2024.

The lab has had problems with handling the waste it now generates — with mislabeling, shipping problems and safety issues. Scott Kovac, research and operations director for Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said he has concerns about how it will deal with increased plutonium work that generates even more waste.

“I don’t think they’re ready for increased pit production,” Kovac said.