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U.S. Nuclear Arms Agency Could Go Under Microscope in Weeks

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON -- A congressionally established panel might convene next month to advise lawmakers on the fate of a troubled Energy Department agency charged with overseeing the nation's nuclear weapons, an appointee to the 12-member body said on Monday.

Ellen Tauscher, who until February 2012 served as an undersecretary of State, said she "would not be surprised" if the panel began reviewing options in June to reform the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration. The board's recommendations would be nonbinding.

Congress has designated six Democrats and six Republicans to serve on the commission mandated by the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, she added on the sidelines of an event organized by the independent Arms Control Association. Other panel members include Bush-era national security staffer Frank Miller and former Representative Heather Wilson (R-N.M.).

Tauscher, a one-time Democratic lawmaker now with a private consulting firm, said board members and President Obama's Energy secretary nominee would probably have "a lot of ideas" for improving nuclear weapons oversight. The Energy Department atomic office has faced criticism over problems including cost overruns and a 2012 break-in at a bomb-grade uranium storage area of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.

Past reform efforts have included a Republican-led push to eliminate Energy Department oversight of NNSA operations and increase contractor independence, as well as calls to increase DOE oversight or place the atomic agency under Pentagon control.

Speaking during a question-and-answer session following a speech, Tauscher said she is "trying to keep an open mind" on her positions and stressed she was "advocating" no particular view.

She called, though, for "an NNSA that is an advocate for the [nuclear weapons] complex and one that is able to get the attention and the acquiescence of the Congress and the administration, and it does that because it’s credible."

"I don’t think anybody believes that the NNSA right now has a lot of credibility," she said.

"I find it hard to consider moving it out of [the Energy Department] because it’s such a big piece of DOE and you want it to be in relative … proximity of all of the science and the technology," she later said, adding that granting the agency full autonomy could pose an administrative challenge.

Tauscher also floated the possibility of establishing "a fixed term" for the NNSA administrator, "kind of like the FBI director."

"We also need a Congress that is going to have oversight, and what worries me is we don’t have enough people in Congress that know enough to know how to do that right," she said.

"We have a chance [at achieving reform], but there have been at least five other panels over the last 10 years and all of their body of work is gathering dust someplace," Tauscher said. "My first recommendation is that we read those previous panels' [reports] and I bet you 80 percent of what we should do are in them."

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