The Albuquerque Journal ran a really good editorial on Tuesday, September 17:
Editorial: Time past for coddling bloated nuclear agency
It’s big government on steroids.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, is tasked with securing and maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal. It oversees Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.
For years the agency’s MO has included expectations of nearly automatic budget increases, bloated projects that are never finished, duplicative red tape and a bureaucracy that resists efforts to rein it in.
Critics say it has become a massive jobs program.
Ten of its major projects are collectively over budget to the tune of $16 billion and behind schedule by 38 years, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. For instance, at LANL a new $213 million security system to protect sensitive nuclear bomb-making facilities doesn’t work. So, taxpayers are being asked to lay out an additional $41 million to fix it.
The chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee that oversees finances and contracts largely blames the agency’s reliance on private contractors – more than 92,000. LANL and Sandia are operated by private contractors, LANL by a consortium led by Bechtel, and Sandia by Lockheed Martin.
Former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine told Congress this spring that accountability and internal structure problems pose a national security risk. And there’s no doubt NNSA’s work is critical to U.S. national security, but taxpayers also are tired of watching their money being thrown at an insatiable beast that too often fails to deliver results.
As long as the NNSA remains impervious to calls for improving its culture and tightening up its accountability, the inefficiencies and waste will keep coming.
A congressionally appointed panel recently began studying whether to overhaul the agency. (Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman had said he was open to just getting rid of it.) Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz says the review is a chance to “have this dialogue and reach a conclusion.”
It’s way past time for that talk. The panel should come up with a well-thought-out plan to either overhaul NNSA from top to bottom or outright kill it and let the DOE take on its oversight duties.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.
Abolish NNSA, but increase federal oversight and independent review
Kudos for the editorial “Time past for coddling bloated nuclear agency.” The money the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has wasted on out-of-control nuclear weapons projects is appalling. Some examples are the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project at Los Alamos (estimated costs exploded from $660 million to $5.8 billion), the failed National Ignition Facility at the Livermore Lab in California ($1 billion to $5 billion), the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina ($1 billion to $7 billion), and now the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 Plant in Tennessee ($1 billion to $10 billion).
Despite all this chronic mismanagement NNSA’s proposed budget was increased 17% above FY 2013 sequester levels. That’s right, the guilty were rewarded, while schools, firefighting, environmental protection, etc. were cut.
But while NNSA is truly dysfunctional, its contractors deserve more scrutiny as well. After all, the agency is simply out manned, with some 2,600 (and declining) employees trying to oversee more than 50,000 contractor employees nation-wide. Moreover, these contractors have inherent conflicts-of-interest. For instance, the lab directors wear two hats, first as those responsible for annual certification of the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile, which gives them enormous leverage. Their second hat is as presidents of the executive boards of the for-profit corporations running the labs. How can we be sure they are always acting in the best interests of the country while they are pushing a never-ending cycle of extremely costly “Life Extension Programs” for existing nuclear weapons? Ironically, these programs may actually erode confidence in stockpile reliability by intentionally introducing major changes that can’t be full-scale tested.
As your editorial noted a congressionally appointed panel is beginning to study the NNSA’s future. I make some recommendations for that panel:
• The NNSA is a failed experiment and should be abolished. Its nuclear weapons programs should revert back to “Defense Programs” within the Department of Energy, as it was pre-2000.
• As guarantors of the nuclear weapons stockpile, the lab directors should be just lab directors, their jobs institutionally insulated from the for-profit motivations of the private corporations running the labs.
• Duplicative bureaucratic red tape should be eliminated, but federal oversight should be increased, not decreased (witness a protesting 82-year-old nun infiltrating an extremely sensitive area at Y-12 despite contractor security assurances). Concrete benchmarks need to be put back into now toothless annual Performance Evaluation Plans so that contractors are held truly accountable. NNSA’s past practice of granting waivers for poor performance while handing out contract extensions (as was done for the Los Alamos and Livermore Labs) must end.
• DOE should be required to seek concurrence from the congressionally chartered Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board early in the design of nuclear facilities. Past NNSA delays in meeting safety concerns have been a prime driver of exploding project costs.
• Congress should establish a stringent change control process for nuclear weapons, including a requirement for outside review of all proposed major changes. Because the labs lack conservatism in maintaining the pedigree of tested, reliable designs, independent expert review could save 100’s of billion of dollars over the next few decades and help maintain confidence in stockpile reliability. As a past example, a group of eminent independent scientists called the JASONs found that the cores of nuclear weapons, the plutonium pits, have reliable life times of around a century, in contrast to NNSA’s previous claims of 45 years. This helped to convince Congress to delete funding for NNSA’s proposed, enormously expensive new-design nuclear weapons and related expanded plutonium pit production.
• Finally, the congressionally appointed panel deliberating on NNSA’s future should itself be above reproach. One member, former Congresswoman Heather Wilson, pocketed $450,000 in no-bid “consulting” contracts with the Los Alamos and Sandia Labs, in between her terms representing New Mexico’s First District and her Senate campaign that largely championed the labs. She should resign from the panel so that its future recommendations are not tainted by her clear conflict-of-interest.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico