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Nearly Finished Defense Bill Mandates New Los Alamos Weapons Facility

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. A nearly finished defense authorization bill for fiscal 2013 mandates that a new nuclear weapons facility at the lab be completed by 2026. (Los Alamos National Laboratory photo). The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. A nearly finished defense authorization bill for fiscal 2013 mandates that a new nuclear weapons facility at the lab be completed by 2026. (Los Alamos National Laboratory photo).

WASHINGTON – The nearly complete defense authorization bill for fiscal 2013 would mandate that the federal government construct a controversial new nuclear weapons lab and storage facility in New Mexico by 2026.

The Obama administration had sought to delay construction of the new building, which is part of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The CMRR project is meant to modernize and consolidate facilities used to ensure the plutonium cores of U.S. nuclear weapons are functional without conducting explosive testing.

The administration has argued that delaying construction of the new CMRR facility by five years would save money without harming nuclear-weapon readiness, but the plan has received mixed reviews on Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers sought to proceed on a schedule that would have construction completed by 2024, though a budget resolution Congress approved for the first half of the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 included no funds for the project.

On Tuesday, however, a conference committee established to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2013 defense authorization legislation released a bill that would establish a legal mandate that the CMRR building be up and running within 14 years.

The bill, which is expected to go to the House floor on Thursday, would also mandate that $120 million in fiscal 2012 funds that Congress had appropriated for the CMRR project be used for their originally intended purpose. In September, the Energy Department informed lawmakers it was looking to “reprogram” the money to alternative nuclear weapons complex projects.

The defense authorization bill also would legislatively cap the total cost of the CMRR building at $3.7 billion.

The legislation does not include controversial language limiting DOE oversight of its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration that some House Republicans had argued could address delays and cost overruns associated with the CMRR project and other nuclear arms programs. Instead, a special congressional panel would study whether the governing structure of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex should be changed in the future.

Also included in the legislation is language meant to spur domestic production of isotopes used in medical diagnostic procedures without the use of highly enriched uranium, which could be used to build a nuclear weapon if it fell into the wrong hands. The language authorizes the U.S. government to engage in some cost-sharing with potential domestic firms and phases out U.S. exports of HEU material to foreign isotope producers. It does not, though, address concerns that Russia could undercut the market for isotopes produced with lowly enriched uranium with those produced more cheaply with HEU material.

The legislation does not authorize funds for the construction of an East Coast ballistic missile defense interceptor site, as some House Republicans had sought. It does, however, require the Defense Department to study no fewer than three potential new sites, at least two of which must be on the East Coast.

The bill also sets the stage for additional sanctions intended to discourage Iran from pursuing a nuclear-weapon capacity, pursuant to an amendment Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) offered last month that designates Tehran’s energy, port, shipping and shipbuilding sectors as “entities of proliferation concern.” The Obama administration had raised some concerns about the new sanctions, which Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said lawmakers sought to address in the latest version of the bill by giving the administration additional time to implement the sanctions, National Journal reported.

The White House had previously raised concerns about both the House and Senate versions of the defense bill. At press time, it was unclear what position it would take on the conference legislation.

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