Senators, N.M. delegation protest DOD shift: Problems with nuclear weapons management structure acknowledged

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By Roger Snodgrass

Opponents of a study that originated in the Office of Management and Budget raised their voices a notch this week.

Two letters, both signed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resource Committee, were fired off to OMB Director Peter Orszag and released Wednesday.

The letters express “firm opposition” to the subject of the study, which has to do with transferring the National Nuclear Security Administration to the Department of Defense.

One letter was signed by a group of bipartisan senators in key leadership positions, representing a virtual legislative blockade over such a change.

Along with Bingaman, backers included the ranking member of the energy committee, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Byron Dorgan, (D-N.D.) and Sen. Robert Bennett (chairman and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Appropriation Subcommittee) and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Strategic Subcommittee of the armed services committee.

A second letter was signed in concert by the New Mexico Congressional delegation, with much the same message, but referring specifically to Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.

The issue arose when a “passback memo” came to light in which OMB was found to have instructed the departments of energy and defense, “to assess the costs and benefits of transferring budget and management of NNSA or its components to DOD and elsewhere, as appropriate, beginning in FY 2011.”

Bingaman said at the time that he would fight the transfer “tooth and nail.”

Asked why this step was thought to be necessary, Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for Senator Bingaman emailed, “It was never officially canceled. DOE/DOD is looking into it.” She said the same instructions are still in effect.

Both letters acknowledge problems with NNSA and its structural relationship with DOE but urge Orszag to wait until the completion of the Nuclear Posture Review, due in January 2010.

That review, which will strongly influence nuclear policy into the future, will provide guidance on such matters as the size and make-up of the nuclear stockpile and the resources that will be needed to support it.

A discussion paper included with the letter from the Senate committee leaders summarized the arguments against military control, going back to the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which said, “civilian control accords with principles cherished and maintained through American history.”

Civilian, non-military control over nuclear weapons development during the subsequent 63 years, the discussion paper asserts, “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 underlie the critical differences between nuclear weapons and conventional munitions.”

The authors suggest that civilian control has facilitated the control of the spread of nuclear weapons internationally by means of technical assistance, monitoring, shared science and access to other nations, that would have been impossible otherwise.

On another tack, the paper warns that, “Under DOD control scientists will leave the complex and science funding will likely be a lesser priority than support of the war-fighter.”

The exodus of scientists would also damage the diversification process that has been going on in the national laboratories since the end of the Cold War, chilling the process by which technical advances and economic contributions have emerged.

The paper cites three previous studies of the issue that have re-affirmed the principal of civilian control, beginning with a blue-ribbon commission under President Reagan that recommended maintaining the existing relationship between the defense and energy and a report led by former Motorola Chairman Robert Galvin 10 years later.

Most recently the Defense Science Board, while suggesting that the nuclear weapons complex by separated from DOE, acknowledged that the work was “different from other DOE activities.”

They conclude, “DOD alone is not a good fit for the NNSA.”