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Key Republicans Look To Scrap Controversial Nuclear Security Legislation

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A sign seen last month warns against trespassing at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.  Some GOP lawmakers hope to defeat a House measure drafted by fellow Republicans that would allow greater autonomy for the Energy Department branch that oversees Y-12 and other nuclear-weapon facilities (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig).
A sign seen last month warns against trespassing at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. Some GOP lawmakers hope to defeat a House measure drafted by fellow Republicans that would allow greater autonomy for the Energy Department branch that oversees Y-12 and other nuclear-weapon facilities (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig).

WASHINGTON – The GOP leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is looking to override fellow Republicans on another panel and scrap legislative language that would reduce the Energy’s Department’s oversight of U.S. nuclear weapons facilities, a key lawmaker said Wednesday.

Representative Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chairman of the energy panel’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, told Global Security Newswire that he hopes to have the controversial language removed from the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013 during upcoming conference negotiations with the Senate.

Stearns spoke after chairing a hearing in which subcommittee members said a recent security breach at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee showed that the changes called for in the bill are inappropriate. The lawmaker said he expected the conference negotiations to occur “sooner rather than later,” noting that Congress does not “have many days in the legislative session left” before breaking for the November elections.

Championed by House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the lower chamber’s version of the authorization bill would remove the Energy’s Department’s ability “to make policy, prescribe regulations and conduct oversight of health, safety and security in the nuclear security enterprise.” These authorities would shift to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the semiautonomous division of the department that oversees the nation’s atomic arms complex.

On July 28, an 82-year-old nun and two others were able to infiltrate the section of the Y-12 facility that houses a storage structure for weapon-grade uranium. In recent weeks, some House Democrats have told GSN that the incident demonstrates that the legislation is flawed and that nuclear weapons facilities need more DOE governance, not less.

Some GOP lawmakers now appear to agree.

"If there's ever a time for more aggressive oversight, this is it," Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas) said during Wednesday’s hearing.

Turner, though, has argued that that the Y-12 break-in proves that the current system of oversight is failing and should be overhauled as the language drafted by his committee proposes.

The House approved the bill in May.

The Democrat-controlled Senate has not included similar language in its version of the defense bill and the Obama administration also opposes the language. Preserving the House language in the conference talks could prove a challenge for Turner and his allies given Stearns’ remarks on Wednesday.

“Our friends on the Armed Services Committee have moved legislation through the House that would dramatically limit DOE’s ability to conduct independent internal oversight over its program management and the contractors,” Stearns said during the hearing. “I recognize that NNSA has not been delivering all that is expected of it. But this committee, given its jurisdictional and longtime policy interests in effective DOE management, has to diagnose the problems for itself, independently.”

Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats were even more direct in their criticism of the Armed Services’ proposal.

Given the incident at Y-12, “I can’t think of any reason why we would want to decrease our oversight of these facilities,” said Representative Diana DeGette (Colo.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee.

Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) criticized Energy and Commerce Republicans for not stopping the legislation from advancing through the House in the first place. He called the provisions in the bill that would curtail DOE oversight of security at the nuclear weapons facilities “outrageous.”

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