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Bill Aims To Limit Nuke Complex Oversight, Arms Control Funds

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bomber undergoes inspection in July 2012 at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. A House of Representatives defense bill would prohibit spending for select nuclear arms control activities (U.S. Air Force photo). A nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bomber undergoes inspection in July 2012 at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. A House of Representatives defense bill would prohibit spending for select nuclear arms control activities (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- Draft legislation the House Armed Services Committee will mark up on Wednesday includes potentially controversial provisions that would limit federal oversight of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and hold back funds for compliance with a key arms control pact, sources say.

The fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act bill released on Monday by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) would prohibit spending on several efforts related to the New START accord, including planned reductions and elimination of ICBMs, elimination of heavy bombers and conversions of B-52 bombers.

The measure would expand an initiative designed to let some weapons complex contractors evaluate their own performance – an idea that has become increasingly contentious since an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists were able to infiltrate the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee last July.

It is not the first time House Armed Service Committee Republicans have sought to streamline what they say is overly burdensome federal supervision that contributes to cost overruns and delays associated with various arms modernization programs and construction projects. The committee’s draft of the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill included several measures in that vein.

Senate Democrats and the Republican leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee rejected many of those provisions last year, including one measure that would have removed the Energy Department’s authority “to make oversight of health, safety and security in the nuclear security enterprise.” Those powers would have shifted to the department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the U.S. atomic arms complex.

In the version of the bill signed into law, the controversial provisions were replaced with language that created a special congressional advisory panel to further study the issue of weapons complex oversight in light of the Y-12 break-in.

In this year’s legislation, House Armed Services Committee Republicans said they expect the new advisory panel will “provide concrete and actionable recommendations for fixing the longstanding and well-documented problems with the current system.” They added, however, that they are “concerned that fiscal challenges and the large scope of work facing the National Nuclear Security Administration necessitate more immediate action as well.”

The bill, as it stands, would require the NNSA expansion of an effort to establish “contractor assurance systems” that would allow some contractors that manage NNSA facilities to evaluate their own performance in lieu of direct government oversight. The draft bill refers specifically to a pilot program ongoing at the NNSA Kansas City Plant in Missouri, and says the principles of that project must be extended to other agency facilities.

Democrats might argue that it is not yet clear whether the effort being undertaken at the Kansas City Plant, which handles only non-nuclear parts for nuclear weapons, is appropriate for other NNSA facilities, according to a Capitol Hill source. While the bill prevents the initiative from being expanded to nuclear operations, it does not rule out its extension to other “high-hazard or high-risk activities,” though it does enable the NNSA administrator to make that decision.

Democrats might prefer not to institute a change absent further studies, according to the source, who asked to remain anonymous due to not being authorized to discuss the issue publicly. The source noted that the prospect of rolling back federal oversight has become a particularly concern since the Y-12 break-in.

The Republican leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has also raised concerns about contractor assurance systems. In a letter last year, the panel said Government Accountability Office reports had called into question whether contractors could “conduct self-assessments that provide the objective performance information on which the government should rely to make performance determinations with hundreds of millions dollars annually.”

Another provision of the draft bill backed by House Armed Services Republicans would give the Energy secretary special authority to fire any DOE employee “that endangers the security of special nuclear material or classified information.”

Committee Republicans have expressed particular interest in the department’s ability to fire employees due to security breaches since the intrusion  at Y-12, which handles weapon-grade uranium. During a March hearing, Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chastised Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman for characterizing his question on whether federal officials could be fired following such incidents as a “technical legal question” that he was reluctant to answer.

At the time, Turner suggested it might be necessary to pass legislation “that absolutely makes it clear that if due to the performance of individuals the security system fails it would be an offense resulting in termination.” Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) told Global Security Newswire after the same hearing that Glenn Podonsky, the Energy Department’s top health, safety and security officer who has disagreed with committee Republicans on how best to respond to the Y-12 incident, ought to be fired.

Under the draft provision released on Monday, a fired employee would have 30 days to “submit to the secretary statements or affidavits to show why the employee should be restored to duty.” The Energy secretary’s decision “to terminate the employment of an employee under this section is final and may not be appealed or reviewed outside the department,” however.

According to the Capitol Hill source, the termination provision is another measure regarding safety and security at nuclear weapons facilities that Democrats might raise concerns about. Some might argue the provision lacks sufficient due process and could discourage whistleblowers from flagging concerns about security issues, said the source.

Representative Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on McKeon’s panel, said the draft bill “mandates changes that undermine strong health and safety oversight at Department of Energy nuclear weapons sites,” but did not go into specifics.

Another potentially controversial provision would require the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to conduct cost-benefit analysis of any recommendations it makes, upon request from the Energy secretary. Democrats could raise concerns that conducting such analyses would drain the safety board’s resources and limit its ability to conduct oversight and make recommendations on how to improve safety and security across the weapons complex, according to the Capitol Hill source.

Limits on funding for implementation of the New START disarmament agreement with Russia are also prompting alarm among Democrats. The bill, which entered into force in 2011, requires both nations by 2018 to field no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and 700 delivery systems. Language in McKeon's bill could be an obstacle to the Obama administration's effort to retire ground- and air-deployed systems to meet the accord limit.

For example, the draft bill withholds $14.7 million in fiscal 2014 funding for ICBM eliminations and an enviornmental impact study related to New START implementation. It also holds back $3.6 million for ICBM reductions and another $1 million for conversions of B-52 bomber aircraft and heavy bomber eliminations. In total, the bill witholds about $70 million for activities related to the treaty for the budget year that begins on Oct. 1.

In his Monday statement, Smith warned that delaying “or preventing implementation of the U.S.-Russia New START Treaty undermines strategic stability and progress toward reducing the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.”

A spokesman for House Armed Services Committee Republicans did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

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