Nuclear Weapons Oversight Reforms Pared Down in Compromise Bill

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.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
Dec. 20, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

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.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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