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House Panel Reaffirms Support for Oversight of Nuclear Weapons Complex

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Warning signs at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday reaffirmed their position that more oversight of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is needed (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig). Warning signs at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday reaffirmed their position that more oversight of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is needed (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig).

WASHINGTON -- Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday reaffirmed their position that greater Energy Department oversight of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is needed in the wake of last year’s break-in at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.

“The assessments made after the Y-12 incident show that the problem is not too much DOE oversight; it is too little,” Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said during a hearing of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

Panel members from both parties have taken an opposing view from Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee on the lesson delivered by the intrusion of an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists into a secured area that holds weapon-grade uranium.

While GOP lawmakers on the Armed Services Committee have asserted the incident underscored the need to legislatively restrict DOE oversight of the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, Energy and Commerce lawmakers argued the opposite.

House Republicans last year pressed legislation that would have curbed DOE authority “to make policy, prescribe regulations and conduct oversight of health, safety and security in the nuclear security enterprise.” That power would have shifted to NNSA officials who oversee the nation’s nuclear arms complex.

The energy panel, backed by the Democrat-led Senate, defeated the authority-lightening measure that would have been part of the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.

Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman and other current and former officials appeared before the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Wednesday for the latest in a set of hearings on the problems that allowed the July intrusion to occur and ensuring “the highest standards for safe and secure operations” at NNSA nuclear arms research and manufacturing sites.

The Energy Department’s inspector general last year cited a host of personnel and technical failings that opened the door for the break-in, including a nonfunctioning security camera and other equipment in need of maintenance.

Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) noted that the inspector general found that federal personnel at Y-12 prior to the incident “did not do anything to address security maintenance backlogs because NNSA’s contractor governance system meant they could no longer intervene.”

Murphy said it appeared “that, due to a ‘hands-off’ federal contracting policy, we had ineffective federal security oversight at Y-12 – and potentially at other sites around the complex.”

Waxman and other committee Democrats were even more direct.

It remains to be seen how the House panels’ differing viewpoints on how best to fix the NNSA problems will manifest in legislation this year. Republican staffer Drew Walter said in February the House Armed Services Committee was likely to seek legislative NNSA reforms again in 2013, but that they might not be “as grand in scope” as those it pursued last year.

The fiscal 2013 defense law did require formation of a special, congressionally appointed committee to study the NNSA problems and the possibility for structural reform. Its work has reportedly been delayed due to sequestration and other budget issues.

Among those tapped for the panel so far are former Representative Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and former lawmaker and Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher.

Some officials have suggested that outright NNSA elimination might be in order, and that the weapons complex should operate directly under the Energy Department as it did prior to 2000. Glenn Podonsky, who heads the DOE Health, Safety and Security Office, suggested this approach was worth considering last month. Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) reportedly is of a similar mind.

Poneman said earlier this month that he and other top DOE officials do not support this view; House Armed Services Committee Republicans also appear skeptical.

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