Key Senators: Improve It, Don't Move It

March 19, 2009
04:52 PM
A proposal to study the transfer of our nation’s nuclear weapons labs from the Energy Department to the Defense Department has caught and held the attention of many people – including, not inconsequentially, the Senators who head DOE’s main authorizing and appropriation committees. Because many reporters have asked us about this, we think you may be interested in this release:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, March 18, 2009
            WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of senators is asking the Office of Management and Budget to withdraw its directive to the departments of energy and defense to assess the costs and possible benefits of transferring the National Nuclear Security Administration from the Department of Energy to the Department of Defense.
            In a letter to OMB Director Peter Orszag, U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman, Lisa Murkowski, Byron Dorgan, Robert Bennett and Bill Nelson expressed firm opposition to the move of NNSA laboratories to DOD.  The senators cited several reasons for their opposition, chief among them our country’s long-standing commitment to having our nuclear stockpile in civilian control.  The text of the letter to Orszag follows:
The Honorable Peter R. Orszag
Office of Management and Budget
Washington, D.C. 20503
Dear Director Orszag:
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has directed the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD) to assess the costs and benefits of transferring the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), or its components, to the DOD beginning in fiscal year 2011.  A final report on the interagency assessment is due by the end of September 2009.
As Chairmen of the principal authorizing and appropriation committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over the DOE and the NNSA, we would like to express our firm opposition to the transfer of the NNSA to the Department of Defense.  Further, it is our understanding that Secretary Chu, Secretary Gates, and National Security Advisor Jones all share that same view for a multitude of compelling reasons which are discussed in the attached discussion paper.
We recognize that the current structural relationship to the DOE of NNSA is in many ways dysfunctional. Improvements are needed if the NNSA is to optimally carry out both its missions focused on the stockpile and its potential to contribute to broader national defense, energy, and economic security. While we would welcome an appropriately framed review of NNSA’s structure and functioning, we also believe that any such review would be premature prior to the conclusion of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), due out in January 2010. That review will provide guidance for the size and shape of the nuclear stockpile, and the resources and capabilities necessary to support it. It is a prerequisite to having an informed discussion of the NNSA and its core missions and structure. 
With that in mind, we encourage you to withdraw your directive to the DOE and DOD and defer any decision regarding a study of NNSA, at least until the NPR can be digested and its implications on the NNSA be determined. In addition, we urge you to withdraw the OMB guidance that directed suspension of several upgrades to the scientific capabilities of the labs and further investment in computing capabilities.
            We hope that you will take our views on this important matter into account and agree to rescind your directive.
Jeff Bingaman                                                 Lisa Murkowski                                 
Chairman                                                         Ranking Member                               
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
United States Senate
Byron L. Dorgan                                             Robert F. Bennett
Chairman                                                         Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate
Bill Nelson
Strategic Subcommittee
Committee on Armed Services
United States Senate
Tradition of Civilian Control: After World War II, a fundamental decision was made to have civilian control of nuclear weapons technology outside the War Department. As the authors of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 said, “civilian control accords with principles cherished and maintained throughout American history.”  For the past 63 years, non-military control over the development of nuclear weapons technology has ensured independence of technical judgment over issues associated with our nuclear arsenal, has attracted the best scientific and technical talent to these important programs, and has served to underline the crucial differences between nuclear weapons and conventional military munitions.  The principle of non-military control of the nuclear weapons development complex in the United States has been emulated by other major nuclear weapons states, such as Russia and China, neither of which vests control of their nuclear weapons development complex in their military.
Civilian Control and Nonproliferation:  It has been the policy of successive administrations to promote and support extensive non-proliferation activity across the globe. In the many forms that takes, in technical assistance, monitoring, and shared science, civilian control is the cornerstone that has enhanced the ability of U.S. funded and staffed programs to negotiate access to and trust of other nuclear nations. For example, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, it was DOE civilian employees who were the first to enter the closed cities to secure nuclear materials and to ensure the nuclear brain-trust did not move to rogue states.
President Obama’s Ambitions for a Nuclear Free World:  It is the stated goal of our new president to free the world of nuclear weapons and to achieve the interim step of adoption of a comprehensive test ban treaty.  Both the long-term goal and short-term goals are critically dependent upon a trusted and independent, science-based capability that can only reside within civilian control.  Under DOD control, scientists will leave the complex and science funding will likely be a lesser priority than support of the war-fighter. Without that capability, the U.S. will have to revert to nuclear testing, setting in motion a launch of nuclear testing across the world.
Diversification of the Lab Mission:  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the nuclear laboratories, with the urging of Congress, have diversified their missions beyond stockpile stewardship. The deep and creative capabilities of the science and engineering labs have provided great research and development in a wide range of missions that are critical to the nation, including but not limited to nuclear reconnaissance and homeland security research, energy security, including renewable energy, energy storage, solid state lighting, climate change and nanotechnology. Those same labs have given birth to many commercialized capabilities that have grown high-tech jobs here at home.  A transfer of NNSA labs to DOD will cause an exodus of scientists from the labs, and a debilitating loss of capability across these other critical security missions.
Prior Studies:  On at least three occasions since World War II, the principle of non-military control of nuclear weapons development has been reviewed -- by external panels of the most eminent experts.  In 1985, President Reagan’s Blue Ribbon Task Group on Nuclear Weapons Program Management recommended retaining the current relationship between the departments of Defense and Energy because of the “checks-and-balances for nuclear weapons safety, security, and control” afforded by the Department of Energy’s “independent judgments” and “technology base” on these matters.  Ten years later, a special commission appointed by Secretary of Energy O’Leary and headed by former Motorola Chairman Robert Galvin re-affirmed the importance of independent judgment outside the Department of Defense on the reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile, under a policy of no nuclear testing.  In 2006, the Defense Science Board, the DOD’s preeminent panel of science experts wrote in its report entitled “Nuclear Capabilities” that nuclear “warhead R&D and production are different from other DOD activities,” as they involved “unique phenomena and the extreme physical regimes involved in nuclear explosions.”  The Board concluded that the “DOD alone is not a good fit for the NNSA”.
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