White House weighs moving labs under Pentagon

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By Roger Snodgrass

New Mexico’s congressional delegation reacted strongly to hints that the Obama administration might be considering transferring pieces of the nuclear weapons laboratories to the Pentagon.


A “passback” memo containing instructions from the White House Office of Management and Budget calls for the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy to put their heads together with other stakeholders of the nuclear weapons labs to plan what could amount to a radical dismemberment of the National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees the nuclear weapons complex.


The relevant page of the memo, obtained by the Monitor Wednesday, calls for the defense and energy departments 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.”


The assessment group is supposed to be identified and up and running by next month and deliver a final report by the end of September.


Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, immediate reaction was he would “fight it tooth and nail if they intended to proceed with it.”


Wednesday, he said he was in strong disagreement with the idea and was talking to other members of Congress and the departments to get their views of the idea.”


“I expressed in no uncertain terms that this was something I would strongly object to,” he said. “This is something that would not be good for the country and it would be a major misstep.”


Los Alamos National Laboratory and the NNSA site office officials said they were unable to comment on the internal memo.


At least one policy analyst has seen something like this coming.


Jack Jekowski, a weapons complex consultant in Albuquerque, began alerting his clients last month that history was beginning to repeat itself. He was seeing trend lines similar to the period in the late 1990s that led up to the attempted DOE Abolishment Act in 1999, sponsored by former Sen. Spencer Abraham.


Abraham became the first Energy Secretary in the Bush Administration in 2001.


The pressure to transfer or close laboratories was somewhat relieved briefly during a “honeymoon” period after the establishment of the NNSA, as a “quasi-independent” agency within DOE, but about nine months after 9/11, Jekowski observed, “the intensity and frequency of negative assessments against DOE/NNSA has increased seemingly taking the external perspective to a height of contempt for the Department by some members of Congress,” harking back to the previous period when the organizational surgery was proposed.


“All the indicators were pointing to the possibility that this was about to happen again,” Jekowski said Wednesday.


With the decision to open several additional weapons laboratories up for competition and a period of safety and security problems centered at LANL, concerns began to grow again, reflected in reports and audits by the DOE Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service.


Efforts to resolve generally recognized needs for change and consolidation were greeted by a discordant variety of independent reviews and spirited opposition to weapons projects and investments.


A major review by the Defense Science Board was released at the end of 2006, concluding that there was little hope for reform within the present DOE/NNSA structure.


While weighing the idea of transferring the energy department’s nuclear weapons work to the Pentagon, the board decided that was beyond DOD’s management experience, but called for a new independent entity with a closer relationship to the Pentagon.


The report agreed with other studies that a lack of a national consensus about the role and future needs of nuclear weapons hindered the search for a solution.


In his analysis, Jekowski has noted some new studies that are now in the works within the short to medium term.


Among them are recommendations by the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the U.S., a report on nuclear policy, the Nuclear Posture Review and the DOD Quadrennial Defense Review.


The coincidence of weighty evaluations offers an opportunity, as was the case during the early Bush administration, for another rare opening to realign the nation’s nuclear weapons regime.


“My own take is that there is a new generation coming through,” Jekowski said. “They don’t have the ownership of these previous decision processes, or the wisdom. It’s a younger generation that wants to go forward with their own ideas. Let’s hope they don’t, in the process, make decisions that the world will come to regret.”


Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also sent out a statement Wednesday, saying he had worked in the House of Representatives to find ways that New Mexico’s laboratories could expand their mission in all areas of national security.


“I will fight alongside Sen. Bingaman against any effort to limit the ability of these labs to expand their missions,” he said.


Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., issued a statement regarding the reports .


“I am concerned by recent reports regarding the prospect of moving Los Alamos National Laboratory out of the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy and solely under the control of the Department of Defense. Such a potential move would be extremely  problematic, endangering critical research and jobs. I will work with my colleagues to fight any such change. We must protect jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, promote research on renewable energy and encourage environmental cleanup.


“Moreover, under the Department of Energy, Los Alamos National Laboratory is uniquely positioned to address the energy and economy crises.”