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Agency criticized for delay

WASHINGTON — The government’s nuclear weapons agency is at least four years behind schedule to transfer nuclear safety and training equipment from New Mexico to the Nevada Test Site, according to auditors and officials in Congress.

The machinery remains at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and neither the lab nor the test site has the ability to carry out certain criticality experiments during the transition period, auditors said.

Representatives of the Energy Department inspector general also were told there have been “slippages” in work on radiation detection monitors for the Department of Homeland Security, according to a report issued in February.

On Capitol Hill, key lawmakers said they were disappointed in the National Nuclear Security Administration and in the Los Alamos lab.

An energy spending bill the House will debate soon cuts funding in half for the relocation project. It would allocate $14.45 million for the program. The NNSA had requested $29.45 million.

The budget reflects the “schedule slip,” and the savings are being reallocated to “higher priorities,” according to a report the House Appropriations Committee issued with the bill.

The NNSA in response disputed there has been a delay. Spokeswoman Julianne Smith said the auditors assumed the NNSA was working on an accelerated schedule that the agency had rejected.

Kevin Rohrer, an NNSA spokesman in Nevada, said the equipment is scheduled to arrive beginning in March 2009 and will be operational by June 2010.

At question is relocation of four assemblies from the Critical Experiments Facility at Los Alamos to the Device Assembly Facility, a 100,000-square-foot, high-security bunker on the remote Nevada range.

The move grew from security concerns at Los Alamos. The Critical Experiments Facility is at Technical Area 18, which has failed security reviews and mock attacks by Army special forces posing as terrorists.

Along with criticality experiments, the facility provides hands-on training for emergency responders and nuclear plant engineers that incorporates plutonium, enriched uranium and other special nuclear materials.

An estimated two tons of nuclear weapons-usable materials already have been relocated from New Mexico to Nevada. But the goal of a speedy equipment transfer seemingly has not been accomplished, according to auditors.

Officials at the NNSA said they have minimized the effects by shifting safety training to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Michael Kane, an NNSA associate administrator, added the agency plans to have operators trained and ready by the time the machinery is brought on line in 2010.

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