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
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.

Source:
×