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Nuclear Weapons Oversight Reforms Pared Down in Compromise Bill

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Demonstrators at Washington's Lincoln Memorial, circa 1995, shield themselves from the rain with a banner protesting nuclear weapons. U.S. Congress oversight-reform legislation, prompted by a 2012 activist-trespassing incident at a Tennessee nuclear-materials facility, has been pared back (Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images). Demonstrators at Washington's Lincoln Memorial, circa 1995, shield themselves from the rain with a banner protesting nuclear weapons. U.S. Congress oversight-reform legislation, prompted by a 2012 activist-trespassing incident at a Tennessee nuclear-materials facility, has been pared back (Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images).

Efforts by House GOP members to reform official oversight of nuclear-weapons contractors took another hit when lawmakers unveiled a new defense bill.

The compromise defense authorization legislation for fiscal 2014, which House Republicans released in cooperation with Senate Democrats on Dec. 10, includes remnants of House-originated provisions aimed at addressing perceived management problems in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

The measures do not go as far as the House Armed Services Committee had initially sought, however.

Much of the debate on weapons facility oversight has been framed in the context of a July 2012 incident in which an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists were able to infiltrate the Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex in Tennessee. The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous arm of the Energy Department, oversees the facility.

Following the episode, Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), a senior member of the panel and former chairman of its Strategic Forces Subcommittee, sought to give the Energy secretary special authority to fire any Energy Department employee "that endangers the security of special nuclear material or classified information."

Turner chastised Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman during a March hearing for characterizing the lawmaker's question about dismissal authority surrounding such incidents as a "technical legal question" that he was reluctant to answer. During the exchange, Turner announced his intentions to address the issue through legislation if the administration was unable to satisfy his concerns.

The version of the defense authorization bill that the House passed in June included the measure that Turner sought, but the provision allowing expanded firing authority was dropped from conference-committee legislation during negotiations with Senate Democrats. The compromise bill instead directs the Energy secretary to submit a report to Congress "on the authorities available to the secretary to terminate federal employees."

The Energy Department report, which would be due in March, should "describe in detail why such authorities were insufficient to terminate employees in the aftermath of the Y-12 incident."

It should also "include a list of officials in the DOE and NNSA structure that had responsibility for security at Y-12 in July 2012, a description of any disciplinary actions taken with respect to such officials, and such officials’ current positions," according to an explanation of the compromise bill released jointly by House Republicans and Senate Democrats.

The joint explanation notes that "several federal employees were reassigned or allowed to retire" following the Y-12 incident, but says that no federal employees were fired. The lawmakers express particular concern with the fact that "senior leaders in the Department of Energy's Office of Health, Safety and Security have held top security policy and oversight positions for well over a decade despite repeated security failures during this tenure.

"These same senior leaders are now inexplicably being counted on to implement reforms … despite the fact that this same office conducted a review of Y-12's physical security systems just two months prior to the July 2012 break-in and gave Y-12's security a clean bill of health," the conference report says. "This lack of accountability, whether at senior levels or throughout the DOE, is outrageous and must not be tolerated."

Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who currently chairs the strategic forces subcommittee, previously told Global Security Newswire that Glen Podonsky -- who heads the DOE health, safety and security office and who has disagreed with committee Republicans on how best to respond to the Y-12 incident -- ought to be fired.

Panel Republicans have been consistently critical of Podonsky and his office, and last year backed legislative provisions that would have significantly limited his ability of Podonsky and that of other Energy Department officials to influence safety and security policy across the weapons complex.

Democrats, labor unions and House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans rejected the measures, arguing the Y-12 break-in demonstrated that -- if anything -- more DOE oversight was needed.

Podonsky, for his part, has suggested that the Y-12 incident shows that the National Nuclear Security Administration ought to be dissolved. House Armed Service Committee Republicans have rejected this idea, noting that there had been numerous security problems across the complex prior to NNSA establishment in 2000.

House Armed Service Committee Republicans generally have taken the view that, when it comes to oversight of the weapons complex, less is more. Another provision they authored that was dropped from the final version of the fiscal 2014 bill was one that would enable the Energy secretary to request cost-benefit analyses of any recommendations of the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

Democrats were generally skeptical of that provision, fearing that requiring cost-benefit analyses would drain the safety board’s resources and inhibit its ability to conduct crucial reviews.

The joint explanation of the compromise bill, however, notes "that a variety of independent assessments in recent years have indicated that DNFSB oversight, coupled with DOE's history of not challenging DNFSB recommendations, have contributed to increasing costs within the nuclear security enterprise that may achieve comparatively small safety benefits."

One such study, released earlier this year by the National Academies of Science, said DNFSB assessments "generally focus on the safety risks associated with particular experiments [related to maintaining the stockpile] rather than weighing those risks against the benefits to be derived from the experiments and the risks to the nuclear weapons program from not conducting the experiments," according to the lawmakers.

House Armed Services Committee Republicans also had sought to include a provision that would have mandated the expansion of a pilot program under which weapons contractors assess their own performance. The compromise bill does not require that the pilot program, currently limited to the NNSA Kansas City Plant, be expanded.

Instead, it requires a study of the feasibility of extending it to other sites.

In addition, the bill requires "to the greatest extent possible" that the principles of the pilot program be implemented permanently at the Kansas City Plant.

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