Potential Action on Nuclear Agency Reform Deferred to Year's End

(Aug. 24) -A technician operates equipment in the Joint Nuclear Explosives Training Facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The Obama administration has deferred a decision on whether the Pentagon should assume the Energy Department's responsibility for managing the nation's nuclear arsenal (Los Alamos National Laboratory photo).
(Aug. 24) -A technician operates equipment in the Joint Nuclear Explosives Training Facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The Obama administration has deferred a decision on whether the Pentagon should assume the Energy Department's responsibility for managing the nation's nuclear arsenal (Los Alamos National Laboratory photo).

WASHINGTON -- The White House budget office has reversed course on its plan to formally review whether responsibility for the safety, security and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons should be transferred from the Energy Department to the Defense Department (see GSN, March 19).

Instead, the matter is being considered in interagency discussions and as part of a broader, ongoing Pentagon assessment of nuclear weapon strategy, forces and readiness, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget told Global Security Newswire.

"A formal study hasn't been initiated," Ken Baer, the OMB communications director, said in a written response to questions.

Congressional sources said the initiative to move the nuclear agency appears, at least for now, to have lost momentum.

"The administration's actions speak louder than any words," said one House aide, who was not authorized to address the issue publicly and requested anonymity.

Budget office leaders in early February proposed that the Energy and Defense departments jointly undertake a study on whether to reposition the National Nuclear Security Administration, which has frequently been criticized for ineffective oversight of the nuclear weapons complex (see GSN, Feb. 5).

A so-called OMB "passback memo" asked the two agencies to lead the assessment and brief the budget agency on their preliminary recommendations by Aug. 7, with a final report due Sept. 30.

Since its formation in 2000, the National Nuclear Security Administration has been a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department. Budgeted at nearly $10 billion for fiscal 2010 and employing thousands of government workers and contracted personnel, its primary responsibility is the management and security of U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear nonproliferation activities.

However, a number of internal and external reviews over the years have said the agency has not performed as expected.

"The governance structure of the NNSA is not delivering the needed results" and "should be changed," according to the most recent assessment, from the congressionally mandated Strategic Posture Commission.

The bipartisan panel -- led by former Defense Secretaries William Perry and James Schlesinger -- found in May that excessive regulation and micromanagement hampered the national laboratories and other weapons facilities, and contributed to skyrocketing costs.

"It is a testament to our weapon designs in the 1970s and '80s that the weapons are NNSA-proof," said Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the New America Foundation's Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative. "Given the failures that run from the management [of] NNSA down to the labs, it's remarkable that our bombs work at all."

The agency touts its record of achievement, noting on its Web site that the U.S. nuclear stockpile has been annually certified as viable in the absence of underground testing, based on a "wide range of breakthrough science experiments, engineering audits and high-tech computer simulations, including extensive laboratory and flight tests of warhead components and subsystems."

To help thwart nuclear proliferation, NNSA officials have worked "with a wide range of international partners, key U.S. federal agencies, the U.S. national laboratories, and the private sector to detect, secure, and dispose of dangerous nuclear and radiological material, and related WMD technology and expertise" around the world, the organization states (see GSN, June 30).

However, others have criticized the organization for failing to make sufficient progress toward nonproliferation goals.

"There is currently a 15-year backlog of some 4,200 retired [U.S.] nuclear warheads awaiting dismantlement," according to Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies, who supports moving the agency to the Defense Department. "Elimination of nuclear weapons continues to have a low priority in the DOE budget."

Despite the concerns about its performance, opposition has arisen to moving the agency to the Defense Department.

After the budget office issued its passback memo, several influential lawmakers demanded that the study be scrapped.

A bipartisan group of five key senators -- including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) -- on March 18 wrote to OMB Director Peter Orszag saying they seek improvements to a "dysfunctional" relationship between the Energy Department and its nuclear agency.

Still, they argued, shifting responsibility to the Defense Department is not the answer. The senators insisted that control over nuclear weapons remain in nonmilitary hands, calling civilian authority a "cornerstone" of the U.S. approach to atomic arms that has earned the "trust of other nuclear nations."

"For the past 63 years, nonmilitary control over the development of nuclear weapons technology has ensured independence of technical judgment over issues associated with our nuclear arsenal, has attracted the best scientific and technical talent to these important programs, and has served to underline the crucial differences between nuclear weapons and conventional military munitions," according to a discussion paper the senators released with their letter.

The lawmakers said a decision on how to proceed should await the conclusions of the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review, which is to be completed in December.

It appears the senators got their way.

Rather than launch a study specifically focused on shifting the nuclear agency to the Defense Department, Obama administration officials are less formally mulling an array of alternatives for how to accomplish NNSA missions and functions more effectively, sources said.

"The Nuclear Posture Review is examining many of the issues involved," Baer said. "Other questions will be addressed through ongoing agency discussions."

Budget office officials declined to specify what additional questions remain under consideration. However, no decisions on the matter are expected prior to completion of the Nuclear Posture Review.

In the process, Baer said, "the administration is looking at the most effective positioning for the NNSA, and it very well may be that the best place for the NNSA is exactly where it is now."

A White House decision not to include any funds for shifting the nuclear agency in its fiscal 2010 budget request -- delivered to Capitol Hill in May -- suggests that the idea "is either on the back burner or dead," the House aide said.

An NNSA spokesman had no comment, referring all questions to the White House budget office.

However, NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino in March voiced resistance to the proposal, saying a transfer would "put our national security goals on idle for two years while everyone is trying to figure out who reports to whom and how the funding comes in."

Bingaman -- whose state is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is responsible for designing most of today's nuclear stockpile -- remains "confident" that the nuclear agency will not end up at the Defense Department, spokeswoman Jude McCartin told GSN last week.

Some critics of the Energy Department's stewardship of the nuclear weapons complex allege that parochial interests prompted the administration to alter its study plans.

"The New Mexico congressional delegation has hotly opposed the idea" of a transfer, Alvarez wrote in June. "At stake is the state's status and the huge amount of funding that supports the weapons labs that dominate its economy.

"In response to the outcry," he continued, Energy "Secretary [Steven] Chu has offered public reassurances that this won't happen."

Alvarez said an NNSA shift to the Pentagon could help focus the Energy Department on developing alternative energy sources. As it stands, energy activities constitute just 18.5 percent of the department's spending, he wrote. Nearly twice that portion of the Energy Department budget goes toward supporting the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, federal officials have said.

"DOE's actual energy functions continue to take a backseat to propping up the nation's large and antiquated nuclear infrastructure," wrote Alvarez, who could not be reached for comment last week. "Despite the president's rhetoric about reshaping America's energy future, the DOE budget for [fiscal] 2010, minus stimulus spending, looks a lot like that of George W. Bush and several presidents before him."

For its part, the Perry-Schlesinger panel stopped short of recommending an NNSA transfer to the Defense Department, though it noted that some unidentified members saw merit in at least a partial shift.

Pentagon interest in the nuclear weapons complex "is, at best, episodic" and if moved to the Defense Department, its funding could become "a bill payer" for that department's other, higher priorities, the commission warned in its report. The group also questioned the Pentagon's ability to effectively operate the weapons laboratories and allow "independent voices" to be heard in assessing the continued viability of the nuclear stockpile.

Lewis agreed that moving the agency and its laboratories to the Pentagon would be tantamount to "suicide for a terminal cancer patient."

The posture commission said the most "appealing" alternative would be to "establish the NNSA as an independent agency reporting to the president with a "board of directors" comprising key Cabinet members. This approach was recently laid out by a Henry L. Stimson Center study.

"NNSA has the potential to support a lot of different activities other than those it has typically been associated with," said Paul Hughes, the posture commission's executive director. Oversight by multiple federal agencies could help make fuller use of the national laboratories in advancing alternative energy, nonproliferation, homeland security and intelligence initiatives, he told GSN this morning.

However, the Perry-Schlesinger panel said such an approach "does not appear to be politically practical at this time." The group did not elaborate.

Instead, it advocated establishing the National Nuclear Security Administration as an "independent agency" that reports to the president via the energy secretary. Hughes said this was the commission's consensus position.

"To make this approach work, the NNSA, as an independent agency, should have a budget separate from any other entity," the group advised.

Lewis said he does not expect the Nuclear Posture Review to significantly improve on what he sees as the commission's "anodyne" recommendation. Rather, he anticipates the nuclear agency and national laboratories would likely remain in "a death spiral of sorts," hampered by "incompetent" management and "shrinking budgets."

August 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- The White House budget office has reversed course on its plan to formally review whether responsibility for the safety, security and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons should be transferred from the Energy Department to the Defense Department (see GSN, March 19).