By John Fleck, The Albuquerque Journal
Criticism mounted Wednesday against any plan to move the nation's nuclear weapons program into the Defense Department, and New Mexico's congressional delegation vowed to fight such a measure.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., went even further, saying he would urge the energy secretary to begin consideration of eliminating the National Nuclear Security Administration and putting the program back under the Department of Energy.
The NNSA, created as a quasi-independent agency eight years ago to manage nuclear weapons design and manufacture, has been a failure, Bingaman told the Journal on Wednesday.
But the solution is not to move nuclear weapons work into the Pentagon, as the Obama administration is considering, Bingaman said. Such a move would hamper the labs' ability to do nonmilitary research, Bingaman contends.
Bingaman's comments came after the Journal reported that an internal memo shows that the Obama administration is considering the move as part of the preparation of its soon-to-be released fiscal year 2010 budget proposal.
Federal and lab officials declined to comment, but the memo obtained by the Journal outlines a study to be completed by the end of the fiscal year on the costs and benefits of shifting nuclear weapons work, including Sandia and Los Alamos labs in New Mexico, to the Pentagon.
Sandia, located outside Albuquerque, designs and maintains the non-nuclear components parts of weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. As nuclear weapons spending has declined in recent years, Sandia has been successful in expanding its work force by doing research for other federal agencies, primarily the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.
Sandia is also considering an expansion of its energy research as the Obama administration considers expanded funding in that area.
Los Alamos, in the mountains west of Santa Fe, designs and builds the nuclear explosive components of nuclear weapons. Its nuclear responsibilities have expanded as other arms production sites have closed. It has been less successful than Sandia at diversifying its research portfolio, but it has also been looking for opportunities to expand its work in the growing energy field.
A shift to Defense would hurt the labs' ability to work on the nation's energy problems and other nonmilitary research, said newly elected Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., whose district includes Sandia.
“I'm not going to do anything that compromises their ability to continuine doing any of that work,” Heinrich said.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., whose district includes Los Alamos, said a move to the Pentagon “would be extremely problematic, endangering critical research and jobs.”
The discussion is the latest attempt at finding a workable management structure for the $6 billion-a-year nuclear weapons program, which includes eight sites around the country responsible for the design, manufacturing and maintenance of the nuclear arsenal.
In 2000, in response to security and management problems, Congress, in a move led by former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., created the NNSA. The organization was “quasi-independent,” but remained under the ultimate jurisdiction of the secretary of energy.
A December 2006 report by a task force convened by the Defense Science Board, a group of independent federal advisers, concluded that the creation of NNSA had been a failure. The same problems that led to the agency's creation in the first place had simply been transferred to the new organization, the board concluded.
Among a number of possible solutions, the board said, the most attractive was to move nuclear weapons design and manufacturing out of the Energy Department and into the Pentagon.
“Given the culture of excessive oversight, micromanagement, and risk aversion without regard to productivity that has developed since the end of the Cold War, this Task Force has low confidence in the prospect for an effective and lasting change in management of the nuclear weapons enterprise within DOE,” the Science Board concluded.
Retired Sandia Labs President C. Paul Robinson, who served as an adviser to the task force, said that he supports moving the labs under Pentagon jurisdiction, and that he believes the change could be made in a way that preserves the longstanding tradition of civilian management.
The new organization could be structured to report directly to the secretary of Defense, who is by law a civilian presidential appointee, Robinson said.
“That's a key factor that ought to be in any proposal that's adopted,” Robinson said.
Former Sandia vice president Bob Peurifoy said a move into the Pentagon would pose serious threats to the nuclear weapons program's budget, because of the temptation by military officials to move money into other programs.
“If DoD became the responsible department,” Peurifoy said, “they would savage NNSA.”
[See also I'm Against It!]