WASHINGTON -- A key congressional committee on Friday announced it is probing the Energy Department's oversight of nuclear security activities with an eye to preventing new incidents like the July 2012 break-in at a nuclear bomb facility in Tennessee.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee uncovered "significant shortcomings" in how the department oversees defenses at sites housing nuclear-bomb material and other sensitive atomic substances, the panel's top members said in a Friday letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The lawmakers cited reports and data examined by the committee after three antiwar activists infiltrated a high-security area for atomic arms activities and bomb-grade uranium storage at the Y-12 National Security Complex.
Details obtained by the committee suggest that "governance and security culture issues throughout the department’s nuclear operations, from headquarters to the site offices, and within the contractor community, have contributed to these management challenges," the lawmakers wrote.
The panel members said they were seeking to more fully grasp oversight problems uncovered after the July 29 incident as well as what steps are being taken in response by the Energy Department and by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the semiautonomous DOE branch in charge of maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons. The committee heads requested additional information they said would inform a March 13 hearing on oversight of DOE nuclear security operations.
"The committee seeks to understand how DOE plans to rectify these issues and prevent another security breach," the committee said in a news release. Neither the letter nor the press statement elaborates on specific concerns.
The legislators asked the department to detail by March 1 its efforts since the start of last year to identify shortfalls in the supervision and execution of its nuclear protection operations. Lawmakers requested any related assessments completed by the Energy Department, the National Nuclear Security Administration and contractors operating on the offices' behalf. They also asked for a schedule for completing any further reviews, and for any following up on findings by the DOE Health, Safety and Security Office.
Committee lawmakers asked the department to explain how it would act on existing recommendations from internal offices and outside organizations, in part by submitting advice from a DOE investigation headed by Brig. Gen. Sandra Finan, NNSA principal assistant deputy administrator. The panel asked the department to identify any alterations to a safety and security reform blueprint outlined in 2010 by Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman, one anticipated witness at the next month's hearing of the Energy Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
It was uncertain if the review could feed into debate over a number of proposals to restructure the Energy Department atomic agency. Reform efforts have included a GOP-led attempt to grant the office full autonomy and increase the freedom of contract firms, as well as calls to boost DOE oversight or shift management of the agency over to the Defense Department.
The committee's aim is to clarify how oversight issues might be contributing to security difficulties within the department, said Charlotte Baker, a spokeswoman for the panel majority. Lawmakers would then consider possible reforms, but it is still too soon to know if they would seek to legislate change or press for reparative steps by the Obama administration, she told Global Security Newswire in e-mailed remarks.
The panel also asked for information on any additional planned changes to DOE computer security, physical protection or personnel screening operations. The letter was signed by committee Chairman Fred Upton (D-Miss.), Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), as well as the No. 1 and No. 2 members from both parties on the Energy Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
The Energy Department and National Nuclear Security Administration did not respond by press time to requests for comment on the congressional inquiry.