US senators: Budget proposal stifles contamination cleanup

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The Trump administration’s proposed budget for the U.S. Energy Department drew criticism Tuesday as Democratic senators voiced concerns that spending to clean up sites contaminated by decades of nuclear research and bomb-making was being cut in order to fund modernization of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

The proposal includes nearly $27 billion, most of which would go toward nuclear security work that includes restarting production of the plutonium cores that are used as triggers inside nuclear weapons. The plutonium work would be split between sites in New Mexico and South Carolina.

Less than one-quarter of the funding would be used for environmental projects in New Mexico, Washington state and elsewhere.

While the nuclear weapons work will be lucrative in terms of additional funding and new jobs, New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich said Los Alamos National Laboratory — the birthplace of the atomic bomb — could see a $100 million decrease for ongoing cleanup and environmental management efforts at the once secret installation.

He questioned whether the Energy Department would be able to meet its obligations to New Mexico for cleaning up the tons of Cold War-era waste remaining at Los Alamos.

Fellow Democrats Maria Cantwell of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon had similar concerns about contamination at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, another site born from World War II’s Manhattan Project. Federal officials acknowledge it’s one of the most contaminated sites within the nation’s nuclear complex and soaks up about two-thirds of the total cleanup budget.

“Tell us which of the problems you’re going to kick down the road even further now that you have a budget that proposes cutting such a substantial amount of money,” Wyden told Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette during Tuesday’s hearing.

Brouillette said Hanford remains a priority for the agency and projects that he described as “low-risk” would be deferred to ensure the most important work at Hanford gets done. He also defended the proposed spending increase for nuclear weapons work.

“Given the current geopolitical environment, the United States must have the nuclear capabilities to meet current and future nuclear security challenges and the key to this effort is sustaining the current stockpile,” he said.

Watchdog groups are frustrated with the latest budget proposal, saying diverting spending to ramp up nuclear weapons work could have dangerous consequences for workers as well as the communities that border some of the contaminated installations.

“It aims to give a lot more money to the nuclear weapons part of DOE than they can ever spend, let alone spend wisely,” said Greg Mello with the Los Alamos Study Group. “The cleanup work is difficult and the programs are hard to management but slashing it is not the answer.”

The Senate committee also pressed Brouillette on plans for dealing with legacy waste and the spent fuel that has been stacking up at commercial nuclear power plants around the U.S.

He reassured the senators that the president has decided against pursuing a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain due to the objections of Nevada residents and some members of Congress. The aim, he said, is to prioritize research and development and evaluate alternative technologies for the storage, transportation and disposal of the spent fuel.

Two companies have applications pending with federal regulators for licenses to build temporary storage facilities for the spent fuel in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. While local elected leaders support the projects, some New Mexico officials are concerned about the state becoming a permanent dumping ground given that the federal government doesn’t have a long-term plan for the waste.

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