Los Alamos National Laboratory will get a hefty funding boost — including for its work on plutonium pit production — in the military spending bill held up by a presidential veto.

Many predict the veto will be overridden, and if it is, the lab’s budget will increase to $3.3 billion from the $2.3 billion allocated last year.

The bill puts $837 million into the lab’s plutonium operations, more than double the previous year’s $308 million, as Los Alamos pursues production of 30 nuclear bomb cores by 2026 — a goal critics have questioned.

Plans call for the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to make an additional 50 plutonium pits by 2030, so the two facilities will produce a combined 80 pits per year as stated in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

The Pentagon and the White House have said they want to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal, which includes adding at least one new warhead, to deter Russia, China, Iran and other potential adversaries that are improving their first-strike capabilities.

Watchdog groups call the Trump administration’s more aggressive push to bolster the nuclear stockpile hawkish and unsustainable, and expressed uncertainty about how much the incoming Biden administration might pull back.

“It’s very hard to tell and we do not know,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, a lab watchdog.

Under Biden, Congress may reassess the National Nuclear Security Administration’s push to ramp up pit production to see whether it’s really possible for the agency to do everything it wants so quickly, Mello said.

Tom Clements, executive director of SRS Watch, another watchdog group, said the 2021 budget will have to be carried out, and it will take time for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration to draft a new nuclear posture review.

But Biden is likely to examine the nuclear modernization program in the coming months, including whether it’s feasible to convert Savannah River’s unfinished mixed-oxide fuel plant into a pit factory, Clements said.

“There are growing signs that the SRS pit plant is gonna get a thorough review by the new administration,” Clements said.

About $481 million is earmarked for Savannah River’s pit operations, Clements said, adding he’s not sure where half of that money will go.

The nuclear weapons’ budget is part of the $740 billion military spending bill President Donald Trump vetoed last week, in part because he objected to a bipartisan provision to rename bases honoring Confederate leaders.

The House voted 322-87 to override Trump’s veto, well within the two-thirds margin required. The GOP-controlled Senate is expected to follow suit because of the strong bipartisan backing of the defense spending bill — which would hand Trump the first rejected veto of his presidency.

One New Mexico senator who is a strong advocate of the Los Alamos lab, pit production and the military lambasted Trump.

“This is another dangerous move by President Trump to put his own interests ahead of the country’s,” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich said. “President Trump needs to stop trying to burn the place down on his way out the door if he ever wants to be remembered as anything other than a tyrant.”

In all, about $1.1 billion will be spent to help Los Alamos meet its pit production goals. Aside from money for operations, the budget will funnel $57 million to improving the plutonium facility, and $37 million will be spent on new transuranic liquid waste handling.

About $169 million will go toward replacing the outdated Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building.

“The bill also includes critical new cyber authorities we need now to protect our networks against the type of devastating attacks we have seen in the past weeks,” Heinrich said.

Funding to clean up legacy waste generated during the Cold War and Manhattan Project has been fully restored to $220 million, Heinrich said. Trump had sought to trim $100 million from the cleanup budget.

Mello said he remains doubtful the aging plutonium facility that never produced more than a dozen pits in a year can be upgraded to crank out 30-plus pits yearly, no matter how much money is spent.

“There’s a question of whether Los Alamos will ever be able to do so safely,” Mello said.

(7) comments

Khal Spencer

With all due respect to Ms. Albright, great powers war only became too dangerous to risk instigating when the great powers obtained the ability to rapidly incinerate each other, i.e. mutual assured destruction, more appropriately known by its acronym, MAD.

I concur with many that nuclear arms are a terribly risky and costly way to avoid world war, but frankly, I don't have enough confidence in world leadership to trust them with conventional weapons alone, which don't induce in devious and power hungry world leaders the deterring idea of a mutual suicide pact. Conventional war is bad enough to not be worth risking. Recall that conventional weapons, famine, and disease in WW II caused upwards of 60 million or more civilian and military casualties, while the two atom bombs caused, in round numbers, a couple hundred thousand and, in conjunction with the Soviet Union's war declaration, rapidly convinced the Japanese to give it up. And all of that warring was started because the West trusted a piece of paper held aloft by Neville Chamberlain as sufficient rather than backing it up with military strength.

I suppose, to suggest a modest proposal, as Swift would say, that we save money by going back to building nukes the old fashioned way: get a Rocky Flats plant back up again and resume testing. After all, what drives the enormous costs of the nuclear enterprise is the silly notion of safety, i.e., building facilities guaranteed not only to be failsafe and leakproof, but to not fail under any conceivable situation, as I once quipped to my friend Greg Mello when I whimsically referred to the now scrapped LANL high level nuclear facility as a Ziggaraut that would stand for a thousand years.

We need to make war obsolete. Nations will build what they think they need and if war is an option, so are weapons a necessity. I don't think we can put the genie back in the bottle. We need to get the world off the bottle. That is the hard part.

Khal Spencer

One correction. I think it was Mr. Mello who called the NF a ziggaraut and I subsequently went off and wrote a blog post about it.

Joe Brownrigg

The "budget" for the Los Alamos Labs has proven to be primarily a cash cow. Now they want to almost double it? And the pit production costs are for more pits than it has ever produced...with more than a doubling of its "budget."

The total military budget now exceeds more than one-half of the national budget. Tell me (without grinning) this represents our national values! Even in the face of a catastrophic pandemic that kills persons and businesses? There is no genuine defense of this craziness...other than greed. It has NOTHING to do with defense of the nation.

D. Stark

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.


T.S. Eliot

Erich Kuerschner

So disappointing for comments to generate to platitudes and condescensions. Even war hawk Madeline Albright has trouble understanding how spending almost FIVE times/ year on nuclear weapons "modernization as is spent on the budget of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes sense.


To those thinking this expenditure makes sense (other than as a cash cow and toy for the amusement of “scientists”) please explain

My view is captured here:

"Since the U.S. halted its nuclear explosive testing in 1992, many weapons engineers at the nation’s key laboratories in Los Alamos, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., have chafed at policy restrictions on the creation of warheads with novel designs – a limitation that crimps their business income and, in their view, undermines the scientific excitement underlying their work."


Dee Finney

plenty of $$ for weapons of mass destruction but pittance for all of us suffering from lost wages, covid symptoms, food insecurity, homelessness, scant healthcare, crumbling infrastucture and the biggest threat, climate collapse.

joe martinez

The anti-nuke "watchdog" community and the free-Tibet crowd that infest the area will soon weigh in against the funding. We have to believe that they just care about our welfare. I think they should all move to a safer location.

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