- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 9, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry backed up his agency’s push to ramp up production of key components for the nuclear arsenal and bolster related research, saying the nation needs to guard against threats and provide a deterrent to conflict.

“The United States is going to have a robust, modern weapons program and we’ll send a clear message: Don’t mess with the United States,” Perry said Tuesday following a tour of Sandia National Laboratories.

The visit to the sprawling campus on the edge of Albuquerque marked the first for Perry. He was shown work being done as part of a $35 million investment in the development of autonomous flight systems that will allow for close tracking of moving targets at hypersonic speed.

Perry also learned about tiny electronics developed at the lab used to monitor the planet for nuclear activities and the “Z machine,” which can create powerful X-rays for research.

He told an auditorium packed with scientists and other workers at Sandia that their contributions - whether related to weapons or discoveries in astrophysics, carbon capture and fusion - have the potential to change the world. He used examples of recent advancements in energy development.

“We are now the largest oil and gas producing country in the world and a decade ago we were beholden to a lot of different countries that may not have had our best interest in mind,” Perry said. “This transition that we’ve seen … it has changed the geopolitics of the world.”

Perry also voiced optimism for “making nuclear cool again,” saying small reactors could be used to bring emissions-free power to remote areas around the globe.

As for the weapons program, he said Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico will continue to play significant roles.

The federal government announced earlier this year that Los Alamos - the once-secret city where the atomic bomb was developed decades ago as part of the Manhattan Project - would share in the production of the plutonium cores that trigger nuclear warheads. The other location is the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Watchdog groups have raised concerns about safety violations at Los Alamos over the years. The problems have ranged from the mishandling of plutonium to instances of worker contamination.

Critics also have taken aim at an order from the Energy Department that they say would limit inspections and curtail access to sites within the nuclear complex by an independent safety panel that provides overnight of some of the nation’s highest risk nuclear facilities.

Perry did not address the order Tuesday but said the agency has been working to reduce bureaucracy while keeping safeguards in place when it comes to regulating the private sector.

“Just having a set of regulations in place is one thing,” he said. “We’re really big about cost versus benefit. If it is costing more than it is benefiting, then we need to be honest about it and have an open conversation about it.”

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