Top officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory are optimistic that a stopgap spending bill signed Tuesday by President Barack Obama won’t significantly decrease funding for the lab’s operations.
The measure will keep the government running until Sept. 30, the end the current fiscal year.
“The continuing resolution is basically funding the government at the 2012 budget level, said LANL Director Charles McMillan during a community outreach breakfast at the Ohkay Casino Resort in Ohkay Owingeh, the pueblo north of Española.
“As you know, 2012 was a very difficult year for us at the laboratory,” McMillan said. “But if we’re able to hold things approximately at the 2012 level, or something close to that, I think we are prepared for that kind of financial year.”
Within the continuing resolution, McMillan added, the nation’s budget for nuclear-weapons labs is considered an anomaly: Those labs will get a little more funding than they did in 2012. On the other side of the ledger, national laboratories will be subjected to sequestration, the automatic federal spending cuts that took effect when Congress failed to reach a budget deal before a March 1 deadline.
“The consequence of that is that we expect to see an effect on the lab’s budget of about $110 million lower,” McMillan said. The news doesn’t come as a surprise, he said, because the lab has been taking steps all along, expecting 2013 to be a tight year. “The places where we expect to see challenges are in the cybersecurity area, some in the plutonium conversion area — the area where we convert plutonium oxide [for recycling as nuclear fuel] — and then some impact in the environmental program.”
Altogether, LANL’s budget has dropped by about $500 million since 2011. That year saw a high-water mark for the lab’s funding because it received an extra $360 million in economic stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Since then, lab management has shed jobs and tightened procurement to stay within the bounds of expected funding cuts.
With another round of debt-ceiling negotiations now in progress in Washington, the administration’s budget proposal for 2014 is scheduled to come out April 8, two months later than normal.
“We’re in for some very uncertain times,” said Juan Griego, acting manager of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Los Alamos Field Office.
Griego said a clearer picture of the lab’s budget for next year will begin to emerge after the administration presents its budget plan. While much of the lab’s funding comes from the Department of Energy, it also receives funding from a range of federal sources, he explained.
McMillan told the crowd about the lab’s most recent accomplishments, including work on a Chem-Cam for NASA’s Mars rover. The instrument — based on a similar concept used by the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor nuclear materials around the world — uses a laser to vaporize rocks at a distance and analyze their composition. LANL’s Roger Wiens is the principal investigator on the project.
The lab director also invited the community to attend the lab’s anniversary lecture series hosted by the Bradbury Museum in Los Alamos. He said 70 college scholarships would be given out this year to local high school graduates to celebrate the 70 years since the lab was founded in 1943.