Jun 10, 2009
June 6, 2009
No matter how you pronounce it — noo-kleer or noo-kew-leer — two debatable points emerge:
• The government needs more nuclear scientists — or maybe not, and;
• Government agencies that oversee nuclear operations need more money — or maybe not.
And therein lies the problem for Congress as lawmakers decide how much money to give those agencies in the next year.
Senate appropriators who oversee funding of the Energy Department said that the White House hasn’t allowed enough money for fiscal 2010 for certain nuclear programs, but one nuclear agency official told them they could hold off on increases for a year.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan , D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said at a panel hearing that the administration stinted in its fiscal 2010 request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency that oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal and also helps prevent terrorists around the world from getting atomic weapons.
Senate appropriators questioned the fiscal 2010 request of $9.9 billion for the NNSA, which has duties ranging from dismantling U.S. nuclear weapons and maintaining the remaining stockpile, to aiding in top scientific research and securing uranium supplies in countries such as Kazakhstan, Libya, Serbia and Vietnam,
“The fact is that NNSA is going to have a very active future,” Dorgan said at hearing, and ticked off some of the challenges facing NNSA, including President Obama’s goals for securing vulnerable nuclear materials around the world and North Korea. At the same time, the United States is working toward further reducing the size of its nuclear arsenal.
“This will require more dismantlements, and that will require more funding,” he said. The United States is engaged in a review of its policy on atomic weapons, with a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report due out in early 2010 — but the NNSA cannot keep its activities in a holding pattern, especially when doing so could cause it to lose highly trained scientists, the appropriators said.
However, NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said the agency wants to keep its programs near current levels in anticipation of the Defense Department’s release of the NPR, which will set the course for the nation’s nuclear stockpile.
Meanwhile, at the NTNF...
The appropriations hearing came on the heels of a Government Accountability Office report stating that nuclear scientists are in short supply, and the government agencies responsible for investigating a nuclear attack are uncoordinated and unprepared.
In portions of a declassified report released June 1, the GAO said the National Technical Nuclear Forensics (NTNF) program, comprised of several agencies and coordinated by the Homeland Security Department, needs a better plan to recruit and train nuclear forensics experts.
If a nuclear attack were to take place, these experts would be responsible for identifying the type, material and origins of the device used.
The GAO also cautioned against proposed budget cuts that would affect nuclear forensic programs within the NTNF agencies.
“A comprehensive and responsive nuclear forensics capability is critical to the national security of the United States because it provides a deterrent to other countries that may provide nuclear materials to terrorists and can help attribute a nuclear or radiological event to specific perpetrators,” Gene Aloise, the director of natural resources and environment for the GAO, wrote in the April 30 report.
Tension and ‘Bad Ideas’
At the hearing, Dorgan and Robert F. Bennett of Utah, the ranking Republican on Senate Energy-Water Appropriations, referred to tensions that they detected between the NNSA and the Office of Management and Budget. “You are not ultimately responsible for this budget request, but you have nonetheless come here to answer questions about it,” Dorgan told D’Agostino, and referred to official internal communications between NNSA and the OMB.
Bennett told D’Agostino he understood the “frustration” that agency officials sometimes face in working with OMB and then having to defend the resulting budget plans. Still, Bennett criticized the fiscal 2010 request that D’Agostino, who was appointed to his job in 2007, was there to defend.
“I don’t think the budget provides adequate funding to the scientific community,” Bennett said. “I think it falls flat.”
Dorgan also asked NNSA to persuade OMB to drop its current consideration of moving responsibility for the U.S nuclear stockpile to the Pentagon, a proposal that’s been considered and rejected in the past.
“It reminds me that bad ideas have unlimited shelf life here in the nation’s capital,” Dorgan said. “This is a bad idea that has been debated and long ago discarded.
“Also, bad ideas are bipartisan. If you get a chance to talk to OMB, would you suggest that they close the cover of that book and move on?”
“Yes, sir, I’d be glad to,” replied D’Agostino.