Feb 21, 2009
Published: February 21, 2009
The Obama administration is studying whether to move the nation’s huge nuclear weapons production and maintenance complex from the Energy Department, its host for more than two decades, to the Defense Department. The more important question is how it can best contribute to a safe reduction of the nuclear arsenal.
Two decades after the end of the cold war — and nearly two decades after the country stopped building weapons — the complex is costly, antiquated, oversized and badly in need of an overhaul.
President Obama needs to clearly promulgate a strategy that downgrades the role of nuclear weapons and demands that the weapons complex focuses clearly on its mission: guaranteeing the security and reliability of a shrinking arsenal. And he needs to ensure that the complex (and Defense Secretary Robert Gates) abandons any illusions of building a new warhead — a strategically and scientifically unnecessary program that would be disastrous for American credibility.
The main reason for considering a transfer is apparently a desire to let the Energy Department focus exclusively on energy issues, one of the administration’s highest priorities. That is a worthy objective. While the National Nuclear Security Administration is officially semiautonomous, it eats up two-thirds of the Energy Department’s budget. Every time it encounters problems, the energy secretary is inevitably distracted.
But transferring the complex to Pentagon control could have unfortunate consequences. The already highly secret complex could lose even the limited transparency currently afforded by Congressional committees that oversee the Energy Department. The national laboratories, which do substantial work for civilian clients, might find their mission narrowed and their ability to attract scientific talent diminished.
The Office of Management and Budget has asked the departments to jointly assess the costs and benefits of a transfer. The study would be wise to consider a middle option, letting the nuclear administration stand as an independent agency whose importance could be underscored by having it report to the president.
Neither department has done a particularly capable job. The Energy Department has a poor record in managing costly and complex programs. Under its control, the national laboratories have had repeated security lapses. The Defense Department also has proved to be a less-than-reliable steward. Lax management allowed intercontinental ballistic missile components to be shipped inadvertently to Taiwan in 2006 and nuclear bombs to be flown across the country in 2007 without anyone realizing it until after the fact.
Wherever the weapons complex is situated bureaucratically, it will have to be modernized, reduced in size and managed a lot more carefully.