Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Nuclear Complex(ities)

The complicated thing about discussing the New Nuclear West is there is no one-stop shop for information. In response to this quandary, I have decided to look through various newspapers from communities in the Interior West states for any local news that is nuclear related.

Looking through the Albuquerque Journal yesterday, I found an interesting article on a part of the New Nuclear West that hits home for myself and other nuclear engineering graduate students:

 According to the author, John Fleck, a preliminary analysis by the primary budget agency in the federal government, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (not to be confused with OMG, which is the feeling most federal agencies get when OMB tells them how much they can actually spend) states that if Congress and the Obama administration cannot come to some sort of budget agreement by January 2, New Mexico's two national labs (Sandia and Los Alamos (LANL)) and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, NM will see 9.4% cuts in their respective budgets. According to research conducted by the head of the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Lee Reynis, this "sequestration" "could cost some 20,000 New Mexicans their jobs." All kidding aside about how ridiculous the name "sequestration" is, the threat of budget cuts has been looming over scientists and science policy advocates in Washington, D.C. for months. Speculation has run rampant about what will really happen, and whether or not both defense and non-defense spending will be cut. As a graduate student in nuclear engineering, I am really worried about the prospect of the sequestration. Most graduate students in nuclear engineering rely on federal research grants to pay for their Master's and Doctorate. On a more regional scale, I also worry about what effects these cuts will have on nuclear-dependent communities in the Interior West. Of the nuclear technology focused national labs in the United States today, three labs (Sandia, LANL, and Idaho National Lab (INL)) are in the Interior West.

Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories 
If cuts to Sandia and LANL could cost New Mexico 20,000 jobs, what will similar cuts do up in Idaho? Unlike Sandia and LANL, which are both within 2 hours of Albuquerque, INL is outside of the small city of Idaho Falls, population 56,000. Similar cuts to INL could be devastating for eastern Idaho, given that Idaho Falls is the largest city in eastern Idaho and is almost 5 hours from the state's largest city, Boise. Beyond Idaho, cuts to INL's budget could impact other communities as well. For example, in my lowly graduate student office at the Colorado School of Mines, six of the twelve graduate students I share that space with have either worked, are working, or will work for one of the three national labs in the Interior West.

Independence and self sufficiency are hallmark traits of westerners, but that idealism becomes problematic when you start to include the amount of money nuclear technology related activities bring to the Interior West. A more transparent understanding of the connections between our large nuclear activities and the greater American West would benefit all westerners, whether they deal with nuclear technology or not. At the end of the day, being in the west is a unique experience, and westerners share the benefits and burdens of their decisions as a community.

(Updated on 9/20/12 at 12:50pm: Link to DOE Office of Science Website added to caption)

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