Advisory panel tells Congress the nuclear weapons complex is too big and too old

The industry-weighted group says the solution is to scale back Washington's regulation

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National Nuclear Security Administration Director Frank Klotz, center, talks about the challenges the agency will have as it tries to modernize some of its facilities during a new conference at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., in May, 2014. 

Susan Montoya Bryan/AP

A special panel appointed by Congress to examine the U.S.nuclear weapons complex reported in December that it is too big and too old, and recommended reorganizing the Department of Energy to give its weapons modernization work a larger political profile and a higher fiscal priority.

The panel that produced this recommendation was heavily weighted with experts affiliated with the private contractors that perform much of the country’s nuclear weapons work, and its list of suggestions for dealing with recurrent cost overruns and technical snafus in the complex hewed closely to the views expressed by those contractors for the past decade.

Instead of calling for stricter contract supervision — an idea long urged by the Energy Department’s office of inspector general — the study recommended the Energy Department reduce regulation, cut the number of DOE field office personnel who supervise the contractors and abolish the current system of tying part of the contractors’ pay to their performance.

The advisory panel, created by Congress as part of the Defense Department funding bill in 2013, said in its final report released in December that the management contractors were burdened with “onerous oversight,” muddled accountability and a “dysfunctional” management culture at DOE.

The 12 panelists were selected by the chairmen and ranking minority members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, and by the Senate and House leadership. The panel’s co-chairman Norman Augustine is the former chief of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, one of the largest defense industry donors to lawmakers.

Lockheed runs Sandia National Laboratories — one of the three U.S. labs that help produce nuclear weapons — and works with the Bechtel Corporation to manage the Y-12 plant in Tennessee and the Pantex plant in Texas, where key nuclear weapons components are made.

Panel co-chairman Richard Mies, a retired admiral and former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, serves on the board of directors of Babcock and Wilcox, a corporation that is part of the consortium that manages the nuclear weapons laboratory in Livermore, Calif. He also sits on the boards of both Los Alamos and Livermore.

Panel member Franklin C. Miller, a former defense department official and special assistant to President George W. Bush, also holds a seat on Sandia’s board. And former California Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, now a strategic advisor with the Baker Donelson law firm in D.C., sits on both the Los Alamos and Livermore boards.

Another panelist, former New Mexico Congresswoman Heather Wilson, received nearly $450,000 from contractors at four of the U.S. nuclear complex sites — including Sandia — after leaving office in 2009.

A 2013 report by the DOE’s Inspector General said the four labs couldn’t document what she did for them. But according to a separate IG report released in November, some DOE officials concluded that Wilson was hired with federal funds to lobby for an extension of Lockheed’s contract to manage Sandia. Wilson denied working as a lobbyist, and her contract barred it, but the Energy Department ordered Sandia to return the funds it paid to her.

The panel faulted contractors mostly for failing to hire “top talent” for management teams at the DOE’s weapons complex.

Sandia National Lab, the advisory panel’s report said, needs to complete the purchase of new silicon wafer production equipment so that it can make microchips for warheads, but Congress hasn’t appropriated the $100 million needed to finish the project.

But the main culprit, the advisory panel found, was the government itself – especially the National Nuclear Security Administration, which owns the country’s nuclear maintenance and production facilities as a semi-autonomous arm of the Energy Department. The report called the NNSA’s oversight “expensive and counterproductive,” and “confusing.”

Contractors complain,the report said, that they have to hire two people to answer the questions of each federal official assigned to oversight.

The panel also recommended abolishing performance fees for management contractors, which account to up to ten percent of the total contract at Sandia and 70 percent at Los Alamos and Livermore. Instead, the report said, contractors would be rewarded with extensions or renewals of their contracts. 

The panel’s report said the complex needed to replace its aging processing plants, while trimming its payrolls. “In many respects, the weapons complex is both too old and too big,” the report said.

The advisory panel’s report said that this was no time for “complacency” about the U.S. nuclear stockpile, arguing that nuclear weapons are still important in an era of asymmetrical warfare even though, some defense analysts say, these weapons have become obsolete. “Nuclear forces provide the ultimate guarantee against major war and coercion,” the report said, “and America’s allies depend on these forces and capabilities” for their own defense.

The panel even suggested abolishing the NNSA, created by a Republican-controlled Congress in 1999, and folding its mission into the Energy Department — while renaming the DOE the “Department of Energy and Nuclear Security” in order to highlight its responsibility for the nuclear weapons complex.

The Obama administration’s reaction to the report was tepid. Frank Klotz, the current administrator of the NNSA, sent a statement to his staff calling the advisory panel’s recommendations “a useful roadmap for improving our performance as an organization,” and assuring them that management would “take a thoughtful and deliberate approach” to implementing them.

In a separate statement, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz emphasized the report’s conclusion that U.S. nuclear weapons are “safe, secure and reliable,” saying the very expensive work to modernize America’s warheads so far has helped the administration’s efforts to reduce the size of the stockpile.

He did not directly comment on the report’s recommendations, noting only that the report called for NNSA’s work to be “more integrated with those of the department as a whole.”

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