LANL Coalition Pays a Visit to D.C.

Sometimes it takes intensive, focused, grass-roots action to make something happen in Washington, where big-money special interests dominate the agenda and the legislative pace is glacial.

That’s why a coalition of business and civic leaders from northern New Mexico, hoping to stave off budget cuts at Los Alamos National Laboratory, traveled to the nation’s capital last week. The group of nine – including representatives of the Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Albuquerque Chambers of Commerce, Gov. Susana Martinez’s chief of staff and others – met with all five members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, as well as top officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Their message? Please don’t let LANL wither on the vine. The nation’s national security – and northern New Mexico’s shaky economy – depend on it.

The coalition, operating without a formal name, is an outgrowth of a similar trip that the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (comprised mostly of city and county officials) made to Washington in April to lobby for nuclear cleanup money at Los Alamos. Last week’s trip took a more business-centric approach.

The latest trip was prompted by the Obama administration’s decision in February to delay for at least five years the long-planned construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility at LANL. The plutonium-handling facility was expected to modernize the aging LANL weapons complex and inject new vitality into a nuclear mission launched during World War II.

Kevin Holsapple, the executive director of the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation, said the spending cutbacks at LANL are being felt in the community because of uncertainty about future lab spending, not to mention the lingering economic recession.

“When you go to local merchants and local restaurants you see it trickling downstream,” Holsapple said over lunch in the Senate cafeteria last week. “People are being more careful with their money, and that translates into hard times for businesses that aren’t even directly involved with the labs.”

Many nuclear weapons observers think the state-of-the-art CMRR facility will be permanently mothballed, based on the administration’s budget request this year. The coalition hopes not.

Last week, its members urged the New Mexico congressional delegation, which includes four Democrats and one Republican, to persuade the Obama administration to back the inclusion of some money – maybe $100 million or $150 million – for the project in one of this year’s congressional spending bills.

“Part of what we’ve been doing here is trying to get that decision revisited,” said Terri Cole, the president of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, during the Senate cafeteria lunch. “We’ve heard from a lot of people it’s dead, but it could be revived if President Obama and his team made the decision to put at least some money back into the project.”

The likelihood of that happening is slim to none, at least this year. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said LANL has been working under the assumption that the money won’t be there and it would be difficult not only to persuade the president and Congress to approve the money this year, but for the lab to make efficient use of it.

“When the administration put its budget together and submitted that at the beginning of the year, the lab began taking action on the basis of that proposal,” Bingaman told me. “I don’t think it’s realistic to think the people (who) needed to proceed with this CMRR facility have just been sitting around waiting for signals. A lot of them are probably not available to pursue this right now.”

Bingaman and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., both said last week they plan to write President Obama a joint letter asking the administration for a detailed plan for plutonium work at LANL in light of the CMRR cutbacks.

“The real question is can we get a plan from the administration,” Udall said. “The work that they (LANL) are doing – work and research with plutonium – Los Alamos has been the leader since the very beginning, and we want them to maintain that leadership and capability.”

Those in the coalition I met with last week think the future of northern New Mexico’s economy depends on the health of one of New Mexico’s largest employers. There are others in the state who disagree. I’ll explore their views in a future column.

Meanwhile, Simon Brackley, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, said the coalition will continue working to keep Los Alamos on the Washington agenda.

“We are united around the need to support jobs in northern New Mexico,” he said. “It’s about saving existing jobs, creating future jobs and career opportunities. That is completely across party lines.”

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