D.C. tackles lab oversight -- at a later time

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NNSA: Friday's hearing postponed indefinitely

By The Staff

The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations had scheduled a hearing for Friday in Washington. The title of the hearing is “DOE’s Nuclear Weapons Complex: Challenges to Safety, Security, and Taxpayer Stewardship.”

But according to a Thursday afternoon posting of the Energy and Commerce Committee website, the hearing has been postponed indefinitely.

Among those expected to testify are NNSA administrator Thom D’Agostino and Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman. Others expected to testify include Glenn Podonsky, DOE’s Chief Health, Safety and Security Officer, Gregory Friedman, DOE’s Inspector General and Gene Aloise of the Government Accountability Office.

According to a background memo from the Energy and Commerce Committee, the following issues may be examined at the hearing:

•What is necessary to sustain safety and security improvements in the nuclear weapons complex?

• What are the risks to reducing oversight of DOE contractors working in the nuclear weapons complex?

• What are the management challenges confronting DOE and NNSA regarding mission performance?

• What is necessary to reduce the risk of waste of taxpayer funds and related cost overruns?

According to the memo, in March 2010, DOE Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman initiated DOE’s “2010 Safety and Security Reform Plan” to revise safety and security directives and reform its oversight approach to provide contractors with flexibility to tailor and implement safety and security programs “without excessive federal oversight or overly prescriptive departmental requirements.”

A similar effort was also initiated by NNSA to reform NNSA security policy. This effort involved a review of a “patchwork” of security requirements implemented over the previous decade to evaluate the effectiveness of the requirements. This hearing will provide an opportunity to review the status of these reform efforts.

Despite these reform efforts, the weapons laboratories maintain that DOE/NNSA oversight is burdensome. In April 2012, the directors of the three national weapons laboratories issued a white paper noting, “[f]rom the laboratories perspective, the NNSA involvement with the details of how the mission is accomplished is excessive and expensive, is not risk-based, and does not represent best practices. The governance is in urgent need of transformation.”

The directors went on to call for structural change to the NNSA, which would include increasing autonomy from DOE, increasing laboratory autonomy, and reducing the oversight burden.

The National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House of Representatives on May 18, 2012, contains reform provisions reflective of the point-of-view expressed by the nuclear weapons laboratories that NNSA should operate with nominal DOE oversight.

The Project on Government Oversight also sent a letter to committee members, detailing its concerns.
POGO cited the latest report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board which claimed that LANL had sharply underestimated the amount of radiation that could leak from one of its facilities as a result of an earthquake-induced fire.

The Safety Board said that the laboratory’s safety analysis was performed incorrectly and included “multiple, substantial deficiencies.”

The letter goes on to say that the report comes at a time when the labs are pushing for greater freedom from oversight. “However, it is evident that more, not less, independent oversight is necessary to ensure the safety of workers and the public, security of nuclear materials, and responsible spending on nuclear weapons,” the letter stated.

“POGO is concerned by proposed rollbacks of oversight at the nuclear weapons laboratories, including several sections in the House version of the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. Self-policing by the contractors who operate the nation’s nuclear weapons puts us all at risk. We therefore urge you to stop the rollbacks and to strengthen independent oversight of the nuclear weapons complex.”

This week, Don Cook, the deputy administrator for defense programs for NNSA, responded and said in a letter addressed to DNFSB chairman Peter Winokur that “in order to develop a response that adequately addresses the Board’s issues, the National Nuclear Security Administration and LANL need an additional 45 days beyond the requested 30-day timeframe.”