Amid controversy over whether Energy Department oversight should be curtailed, the Senate has called for a special congressional panel to study whether the governing structure of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex should be changed.
The department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration today oversees the nationwide system of facilities charged with researching, maintaining, and updating the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
The House of Representatives’ 2013 defense authorization bill would limit DOE oversight of NNSA operations, a change that some House Republicans argue is necessary because of delays and cost overruns associated with various arms programs.
The version of the defense bill that the Senate approved on Tuesday does not include such changes, which other House Republicans and Democrats have said are imprudent given recent security breaches at NNSA facilities. However, the Senate bill does include an amendment that would establish a committee of experts to consider the matter, along with other issues.
As originally introduced by Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the amendment would have focused the committee on the question of whether NNSA operations should be independent of the Energy Department. The amendment was modified after negotiations with Senate Democrats, making the question of autonomy among one of several issues the panel would consider, rather than the main focus.
Lawmakers from both chambers will now meet in conference committee to prepare a final version of the bill, which would cover NNSA national security operations. The Senate version authorizes $631 billion in defense spending. The White House has threatened to veto any bill that contains certain measures from both chambers.
If agreed to by House members in conference committee, the focus of the new panel would be “to assess the feasibility and advisability of, and make recommendations with respect to, revising the governance structure of the National Nuclear Security Administration … to permit the [agency] to operate more effectively,” according to the Senate amendment.
A subset of issues the panel would look at includes “whether the [National Nuclear Security] Administration should operate more independently of the Department of Energy while reporting to the president through the secretary of Energy.” It also includes a study of “the relationship of the Administration to the National Security Council, the Nuclear Weapons Council, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and other federal agencies.”
The question of whether NNSA nonproliferation activities should be transferred to another agency would also be addressed. The panel would additionally examine whether legislative or regulatory changes are needed “to improve contracting best practices in order to reduce the cost of programs without eroding mission requirements,” among other issues.
The 12-member advisory panel, to be appointed by congressional leaders of both parties, would have 120 days to draft an interim report and a year to make its final recommendations.
The Senate on Monday approved another amendment to the defense bill that would attach legislation the Senate passed last year in an effort to reduce the use of highly enriched uranium in medical-isotope production. The bill would ban HEU exports for that purpose, and promote U.S. projects aimed at producing the isotopes with more proliferation-resistant lowly enriched uranium. The House has not acted on companion legislation to the stand-alone version, but will now have to address the issue in conference with the Senate on the defense bill.
Since the Senate passed its bill, some observers have raised concerns that the legislation does not address the potential for Russia to undercut the market for medical isotopes produced with lowly enriched uranium by flooding the market with cheaper isotopes produced in the standard manner. The Obama administration has since taken steps to address this issue, by proposing to pay health care providers more for conducting diagnostic procedures on Medicare patients using LEU-derived isotopes. Industry officials, though, have raised concerns that the plan might not be effective.
The Senate defense bill does not include an amendment offered by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would have attached his version of contentious nuclear terrorism legislation. The upper chamber never voted on the measure, and Grassley issued a statement on Tuesday saying the amendment “was blocked” by Democrats.
The legislation is meant to ensure that the United States meets legal standards mandated by the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Terrorism, which requires the criminalization of possession and use of nuclear weapons and related material.
The measure would also bring the United States in line with a 2005 amendment to the Convention of the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. The accord originally focused on protecting international shipments of civilian nuclear material, but the change would add security standards for domestic storage, use, and transfer of nuclear material to the pact.
While Senate Democrats have sought to approve the version of the nuclear-security bill already passed by the House, Grassley has complained that the House version lacks provisions that would explicitly apply the death penalty to nuclear crimes and extend federal wiretapping authorities.
“Swift implementation of these treaties is important to national security,” Grassley said in prepared comments. “It’s unfortunate that partisan politics won the day in getting these treaties implemented.”