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Nuclear Agency Highlights 2012 Successes Over Troubles

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON – The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration on Monday made brief mention of recent troubles in a review of 2012 developments that emphasized its successes in nonproliferation and management of the nation’s nuclear arms complex.

“We had our share of challenges in 2012, but we have much to be proud of,” NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said in prepared comments. “Our people, both our federal staff and our contractor partners, have done great work executing our mission and improving the way we do business.”

The nuclear agency had “a very good year” in carrying out its nonproliferation commitments, stockpile management and other operations, according to D’Agostino. “There is always room to get better, and we are focused on improving everywhere, from security to project management. We see 2013 as full of great things, and we’re excited for what’s to come.”

Security was the most visible failing for the semiautonomous Energy Department branch this year, as an 82-year-old nun and two other activists in July snuck into a high-protection zone that houses weapon-grade uranium at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.

D’Agostino’s organization has emphasized its response to the intrusion, including dismissing the security contractor for Y-12 and transferring a number of high-level federal personnel who had been involved with protective operations at the site.

“Even when NNSA stumbled, setbacks were met with swift, corrective action and a focus on lasting improvement,” the agency said in a press release.

Lawmakers and others have also criticized spiraling cost estimates for NNSA nuclear complex projects, including the anticipated hike from $4 billion to $10 billion for modernizing hundreds of B-61 gravity bombs.

“It’s clear that from the top down, NNSA doesn’t comprehend the level of mismanagement or irresponsibility that extends from the agency to its contractors,” Tom Crosson, spokesman for Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), said on Tuesday by e-mail. “By highlighting tangential successes and ignoring mission-critical failures, they lack the focus necessary to protect the nation.”

Turner, chairman of the House Armed Forces Strategic Forces Subcommittee, has directed blame at Energy Department oversight of the agency. He added language to a House defense bill that would eliminate DOE authority “to make policy, prescribe regulations and conduct oversight of health, safety and security in the nuclear security enterprise” – a measure opposed by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, along with some GOP lawmakers and nongovernmental organizations.

At least one lawmaker, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), has suggested considering eliminating the agency. His office did not respond by press time to a request for comment.

There was no specific mention of Y-12 or other particularly touchy subjects in a 14-point NNSA list of successes in the last 12 months. Highlights included:

-- The 50th recovery of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium from another nation, in this case Uzbekistan. The NNSA Global Threat Reduction Initiative has supported repatriation of roughly 4,200 pounds of weapon-grade uranium, enough for 75 bombs, to Russia “and is on pace to meet President Obama’s goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material within four years.”

-- Continued NNSA efforts to ensure a safe, secure and reliable nuclear arsenal through projects including the 27th subcritical atomic trial at the Nevada National Security Site. Stockpile stewardship has enabled the United States to go two decades without underground nuclear testing.

-- Dismantlement of 12 percent more retired nuclear weapons than anticipated for this year.

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This article provides an overview of the United States’ historical and current policies relating to nuclear, chemical, biological and missile proliferation.

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