By John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
The Obama administration has abandoned a controversial study that could have led to Pentagon control over U.S. nuclear weapons design and manufacturing.
In February, the administration's Office of Management and Budget called for a study of the possibility of moving nuclear weapons work run by the National Nuclear Security Administration, including Los Alamos and Sandia labs, out of the civilian Department of Energy and into the Department of Defense.
But after missing a key study milestone, an Office of Management and Budget spokesman acknowledged Monday that the study will not be done.
The decision to abandon the study, first reported Monday by Global Security Newswire, does not mean the idea of Pentagon control is dead, according to the statement from OMB communications director Ken Baer. But rather than a fast track study, the issue will instead be considered as part of broader discussions of the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
"The administration is looking at the most effective positioning for the NNSA," Baer's statement said, "and it very well may be that the best place for the NNSA is exactly where it is now."
In response, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., issued a statement reiterating his belief that putting the labs under military control is a bad idea.
"I do not believe the proposal to move the NNSA to the Department of Defense ever made sense. But I do believe that it's important to examine what steps we can take to ensure NNSA is strengthened and improved," Bingaman said.
The study, called for in an internal Office of Management and Budget memorandum, would have looked at the costs and benefits of taking control of the National Nuclear Security Administration away from the Department of Energy, where it now resides.
In New Mexico, it could have led to the end of six decades of civilian management of Sandia and Los Alamos national labs, which design and maintain nuclear weapons.
Administration officials never commented publicly on their reasons for launching the study, citing the internal nature of the deliberations. But others, including former Sandia National Laboratories Director C. Paul Robinson, said a change would solve management problems with the current system. The agency has faced major projects running over budget and behind schedule, along with a string of embarrassing security incidents.
The first phase of the study was to have been done in early August, with the hope that necessary decisions could be made in time to begin any resulting management changes by 2011. News of the study, first reported by the Journal in February based on an internal Obama administration document, drew intense criticism.
In March, Bingaman and a bipartisan group of senators representing key committees with jurisdiction over the labs, wrote to the administration to express "our firm opposition to the transfer of the NNSA to the Department of Defense."
It was signed by Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as Bingaman's Republican counterpart on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the leaders of two other key Senate committees with jurisdiction over the nuclear weapons program.