The Fate of the Nuclear Weapons Complex

Sep 21, 2012

 

The Fate of the Nuclear Weapons Complex

By Matthew Fargo
 
The question of how best to manage the United States Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories and the nuclear weapons enterprise has been a topic of concern for some time. Persistent schedule delays and cost overruns have plagued both the DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) for years. Earlier this month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published another report enumerating the various deficiencies in the DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) oversight of the nuclear weapons enterprise. With so many articulating the inadequacies of the NNSA’s management practices, what can be done in order to ensure the integrity of the nuclear weapons enterprise?
 
Background
 
According to a 2011 GAO report, “As the largest non-Defense Department contracting agency in the federal government… About 90% of DOE’s annual budget is spent on contracts.” DOE’s 2012 budget was $26.3 billion, and next year’s budget request would increase that amount by 3.2% to $27.1 billion. Included in this request is $11.5 billion for the NNSA – nearly 42% of the DOE’s total budget.
 
In 1990, the GAO identified DOE’s contract management as an “area of high risk of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” In 1999, the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board submitted a report on DOE’s management practices with a subtitle of “Science at its Best; Security at its Worst.”
 
In an effort to reduce costs and to improve the efficiency and security of DOE laboratories and facilities, Congress established the NNSA in 2000 as a semi-autonomous agency within the DOE responsible for, among other programs, managing the nuclear weapons stockpile and nonproliferation activities in the national laboratories and other associated facilities.
 
Borne out of chronic organizational dysfunction, the NNSA has also failed to resolve the institutional and managerial failings. Worse still, the government-owned and contractor-operated facilities continue to experience rising operating costs and, according to the GAO, the NNSA has only marginally improved its ability to produce accurate construction management and budgeting estimates over the past ten years.
 
Furthermore, the labs have experienced a spate of safety and security breaches – including repeated failures during force-on-force exercises testing site security personnel – which demonstrate NNSA’s failure to secure some of the most critical facilities in the U.S. At Los Alamos National Laboratory alone there were 37 security-related incidents between October 1, 2002, and June 30, 2007, that were categorized as “incidents…that pose the most serious threats to U.S. national security interests and/or critical DOE assets, create serious security situations, or could result in deaths in the workforce or general public.”
 
Whither, the Nuclear Weapons Complex
 
One potential solution, recommended by the National Defense Research Institute (RAND) nearly two decades ago, would place the NNSA under the control of the Department of Defense. The report, “An Assessment of Defense Nuclear Agency Functions: Pathways Toward a New Nuclear Infrastructure for the Nation” questioned the rationale and utility of keeping the nuclear weapons infrastructure within two separate government agencies: “Over the long term…consolidation within the DoD of all U.S. nuclear weapons-related activities should be seriously considered as a primary organizational option for a much smaller, but enduring and robust U.S. nuclear infrastructure for the 21st Century.” The report suggests that this option would not provide significant cost savings, but that the primary value of such an organizational shift would be the preservation of the national nuclear security infrastructure.
 
Another report published this year by the National Research Council attempted to provide insight into the challenges facing the NNSA. Their report, “Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories” made several recommendations to Congress regarding the management and oversight of U.S. nuclear facilities. The Council found that budgetary subdivisions and restrictions enacted by Congress had reduced the national laboratories’ flexibility to fund promising research related to nuclear weapons. Though these restrictions were intended to provide greater Congressional oversight of NNSA’s use of appropriations, “This loss in funding flexibility has significantly reduced the amount of core program research being performed at the Laboratories.” It is unlikely, however, that Congress will restructure its appropriations to the NNSA to allow for greater budgetary flexibility in the face of numerous GAO reports warning of potential vulnerabilities and the increased risk of accidents at nuclear weapons facilities.
 
The nuclear weapons complex is atrophying. The NNSA continues to flounder when tasked with overhauling the implementation of critical security and safety measures at its facilities. Compounding this problem is the lack of consensus on the future of the nuclear weapons enterprise. If nuclear modernization efforts receive the $88 billion over the next decade as requested in the 2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, the GAO and Congress will be much more adamant that NNSA improve its oversight and management practices.
 
In spite of its organizational inefficiencies, the NNSA continues to achieve its core mission. For the time being, NNSA and DOE must intensify their efforts to work through their long-standing managerial problems. As the future role of nuclear weapons continues to be debated in the United States, so too will the future of the infrastructure responsible for keeping our nuclear deterrent safe, secure, and reliable. Under better management and clear Congressional direction, the National Laboratories have incredible potential. For decades the National Laboratories have represented the peak of American scientific and engineering knowledge and advancement. By leveraging the infrastructure and expertise available at these facilities, tremendous progress can still be made in the fields of physical, chemical and environmental scientific study.
 
Continued discussion of nuclear weapons’ utility and necessity in the post-Cold War environment may help to drive the debate beyond ideology and partisanship and will hopefully result in true progress on a matter critical to national security. Building consensus to resolve the current problems must begin with a basic agreement on the role nuclear weapons will play in U.S. national security strategy going forward. If agreement can be reached on the value of nuclear modernization as a function of national security – especially if the U.S. continues to reduce the numbers of its deployed nuclear weapons and more pressure is placed on the weapons that remain – then the future of the NNSA may look brighter.
 
While the NNSA continues to support the national security of the United States, NNSA’s lack of autonomy and bureaucratic constraint from the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board continue to hinder its effectiveness as an organization. Overcoming the complex bureaucracy that has hamstrung the NNSA since its inception twelve years ago will mark the first step in revitalizing the nuclear weapons enterprise and restoring vibrancy to the National Laboratories.
 
 
Matthew Fargo is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.