By John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
The Obama administration is considering moving Sandia and Los Alamos national labs, along with the rest of the U.S. nuclear weapons design and manufacturing complex, out of the Department of Energy and into the Defense Department, according to an internal memo obtained by the Journal.
Such a change would end more than six decades of civilian management of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
The move, if it goes forward, would not happen until at least 2011, according to the memo from the Office of Management and Budget outlining plans for a study of the costs and benefits of the move.
Officials across the government — at the labs and the federal agencies involved — declined comment Tuesday, saying the document in question is part of internal government deliberations.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., released a statement Tuesday evening saying he spoke to OMB chief Peter Orszag on Tuesday to register his concerns about such a move.
"I think this is a very shortsighted approach, and I will fight it tooth and nail if they intend to proceed with it," Bingaman told Orszag, according to the statement. Bingaman is chairman of the Senate energy committee.
According to the statement, Bingaman said that because the labs do more than defense work, a shift to the Pentagon would damage their ability to do their jobs.
The undated OMB memo lays out a plan for a study to be done by the end of September on the costs and benefits of moving the National Nuclear Security Administration under the jurisdiction of the Pentagon.
It is too early to say what effect any such change would have on the more than 20,000 people in New Mexico who work for Sandia and Los Alamos.
The team studying the possibility of a change will include representatives from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department "and other major NNSA stakeholders," according to the memo.
The policy of civilian management is rooted in a World War II decision by top Manhattan Project scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer to have the design of the first nuclear weapons done by civilian scientists, rather than military officers.
A shift to military management of the weapons program "would be very dramatic," nuclear weapons historian Robert S. Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the possibility of the weapons program being moved to the Pentagon.
In the years immediately after World War II, government officials concluded that the "ultimate weapon" should be left under the care of civilian leadership, rather than the military.
The weapons program was first entrusted to the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1975, a new agency was created, known as the Energy Research and Development Administration. That was followed in 1977 by the creation of the Department of Energy, where nuclear weapons development and manufacturing reside today.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration tried and failed to shift the weapons program to the Pentagon, Norris said.
The latest management change came in 2000, when Congress created the National Nuclear Security Administration to oversee the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. The new agency was created as a quasi-independent body, but remained within the Department of Energy, under DOE jurisdiction.
The discussion echoes congressional testimony last year by C. Paul Robinson, former president of Sandia National Laboratories and a senior adviser to the U.S. government on nuclear weapons issues.
In written response to questions from members of the House Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces subcommittee, Robinson said he thought a shift to Pentagon management of the labs should be considered.
Robinson said in a phone interview Tuesday that he has long supported civilian management. But in recent years, he said, "short-term upheavals" as different administrations come and go, repeatedly changing the direction of the weapons program, have made its long-term management a problem.
"The presence of a uniformed military could provide a continuity that has been lacking," Robinson told the House Armed Service Committee's Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
Robinson complained that the 2000 decision to create the National Nuclear Security Administration has been a failure.
"It hasn't worked," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.