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As Senate Action Looms, House Leaders Warn Against NNSA Reform Bill

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON – As they look toward Senate consideration of fiscal 2013 defense authorization legislation this month, two key House lawmakers are asking the upper chamber to exclude controversial provisions that would reduce Energy Department oversight of U.S. nuclear weapons facilities.

Championed by House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the lower chamber’s version of the legislation would remove the Energy Department’s authority “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 DOE division that manages the atomic arms complex.

Turner has argued that DOE regulation and oversight of the nuclear weapons complex is too onerous and is to blame for delays and cost overruns associated with various NNSA projects. He and other Republicans on his committee assert that excessive department regulation stifles progress at the national laboratories, which conduct much of the work in maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The House approved its version of the defense spending legislation in May. The Senate bill, which presently does not include the controversial measures, is expected to reach the chamber floor the week after the Thanksgiving holiday, according to one Senate aide who spoke on condition of anonymity Friday due to not being authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

The proposed changes have attracted significant opposition from the Obama administration and labor and watchdog groups, which cite concerns that the measures could lead to lax security at NNSA sites. The bipartisan leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which also has jurisdiction over NNSA activities, joined this opposition in September.

In a Thursday letter to two senior senators, the House Energy and Commerce lawmakers expanded on their previously stated concerns, for the first time publicly detailing specific NNSA provisions in the House bill to which they are opposed. Such measures “would undermine Cabinet-level management of the operations and the safety and security of the nuclear weapons complex and related nuclear programs that are an integral part of the Department of Energy," according to committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and top Democrat Henry Waxman (Calif.).

Their three-page message references a July incident in which an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists were able to infiltrate the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, along with other past security problems at NNSA sites.

“This longstanding history of problems within the complex suggests that strong oversight of federal contractors and NNSA officials is needed,” says the letter, addressed to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and top panel Republican John McCain (Ariz.). The letter was also sent to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) and top Democrat Adam Smith (Wash.).

Among the provisions of the House bill that lawmakers find objectionable is Section 3133, which they said “would severely limit secretarial authority, direction, and control over NNSA by prohibiting the [Energy] secretary from disapproving any action, policy, regulation or rule of the NNSA administrator except in limited circumstances with the secretary submits a justification for the disapproval to congressional defense committees and a period of 15 days has elapsed."

The letter says this section "would also transfer existing authorities and responsibilities currently vested by statue in the Secretary of Energy to the NNSA Administrator, including responsibilities relating to stockpile stewardship and reporting; stockpile management; nuclear test ban readiness; manufacturing infrastructure; nuclear materials protection, control, and accounting; research and development; and other matters, effectively breaking the chain of accountability to the Cabinet."

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