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US nuclear lab to relocate hundreds of workers in New Mexico

March 8, 2021 GMT
FILE - This undated file photo shows the Los Alamos National laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. The Santa Fe County Commission has unanimously passed a resolution asking Los Alamos National Laboratory for a new environmental impact statement as it prepares to ramp up production of the plutonium cores used in the nation's nuclear arsenal. (The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)
FILE - This undated file photo shows the Los Alamos National laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. The Santa Fe County Commission has unanimously passed a resolution asking Los Alamos National Laboratory for a new environmental impact statement as it prepares to ramp up production of the plutonium cores used in the nation's nuclear arsenal. (The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)
FILE - This undated file photo shows the Los Alamos National laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. The Santa Fe County Commission has unanimously passed a resolution asking Los Alamos National Laboratory for a new environmental impact statement as it prepares to ramp up production of the plutonium cores used in the nation's nuclear arsenal. (The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — One of the nation’s premier nuclear laboratories announced Monday that it will be moving hundreds of employees from its sprawling campus in the mountains of northern New Mexico to Santa Fe as part of a real estate deal that officials described as the largest job relocation in the capital city’s history.

Los Alamos National Laboratory said the 10-year lease will cover two adjacent office buildings totaling nearly 78,000 square feet (7,246 square meters). The new location includes meeting rooms and space for about 500 administrative, finance and information technology employees.

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It’s the second lease to be signed in a month as Los Alamos officials try to make space on lab property for future hires who will be responsible for building the plutonium cores that trigger the weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The lab is facing a 2026 deadline to begin producing at least 30 cores a year — a mission that has the support of the most senior Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation as the work is expected to bring jobs and billions of federal dollars for construction and infrastructure upgrades.

Nuclear watchdog groups have questioned the need for additional plutonium cores and have said it’s unlikely the lab will meet that timeline given its track record for missed deadlines and safety and security lapses.

Analysts with the Government Accountability Office also have concerns about ballooning budgets. It reported last year that the U.S. Department of Energy’s budget estimate for nuclear modernization activities for the 2021-2025 fiscal years was more than $80 billion — 23% higher than its estimate from a year earlier.

The lab did not immediately answer questions about the cost of the leased space. It did indicate that more space still would be needed as it expects to hire 1,200 employees this fiscal year, adding to the 1,000 hired last year.

As the birthplace of the atomic bomb, Los Alamos — a once secret city during the Manhattan Project — has grown into a massive complex.

The lab last year began searching for commercial space within a 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius of its main facilities in Los Alamos. Its most recent site sustainability plan referred to “critical office shortfalls” and noted that increasing teleworking and shifting “a significant number of staff to work off-site” would open up more space for the plutonium core mission.