Hearing Underscores Problems at the National Nuclear Security Administration

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Publication date: 
24 April 2014
Number: 
75

“Unfortunately, the unmistakable conclusion of our fact-finding is that as implemented the NNSA experiment involving creation of a semi-autonomous organization has failed.”  So testified Norman Augustine about the National Nuclear Security Administration at a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

Augustine and Admiral Richard Mies, U.S. Navy (ret.) are the co-chairs of the Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise.  They were the sole witnesses at a March 26 hearing to discuss the findings of this panel; their recommendations will appear in a final report to be released this summer.

The panel was created following the January 2013 enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013.  The legislation established a 12 person panel “to address the immediate and long-term issues associated with the NNSA.”  A 2013 FYI discussing this provision explained “There has been considerable discussion on Capitol Hill about the relationship between the Department of Energy and the NNSA, and the management of the agency.  This discussion was in response to reports criticizing the Department of Energy for micromanaging the NNSA, the agency’s management practices, costs and a security breach at the Y-12 facility. The House and Senate Conference Committee made clear their intent in lengthy criticism in their report, concluding ‘The conferees believe changes on the margins are not a solution.’” 

There is deep bipartisan concern about the NNSA that was established in 2000.  One of the prime movers behind the enabling legislation was former Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM).  In discussing the reasoning behind the creation of NNSA, Domenici told a conference in 2000:

“The legislation attempted to create a new entity that incorporates the good in the current DOE weapons complex and leaves the bad behind. The new [NNSA] Administrator was provided with a clean slate on which to build the new Agency.  He can include the best of the old DOE within the NNSA -- the history of scientific achievements, the facilities, and many of the people. And negative elements of the old DOE, like the culture of bureaucratic morass, poor workforce morale, and its security, safety, and environmental failures, should be left far behind.”

Augustine and Mies testified that their panel identified many of these same problems.  Augustine told the subcommittee that “NNSA is on a trajectory toward crisis unless strong leadership arrests the current course and reorients its governance to better focus on mission priorities and deliverables.”  In addition to needed organizational and management changes, the panel found a lack of attention to nuclear weapons issues by civilians and the military in this and previous administrations and Congresses, a flawed DOE-NNSA governance structure,  multiple dysfunctional relationships, and “uneven collaboration with NNAA customers.”  Both witnesses described morale problems in the NNSA, contactor, and Department of Defense workforces.  There was also discussion about the degree of corrective action taken after the Y-12 intrusion.  Much of the NNSA infrastructure is very obsolete: 54 percent is more than 40 years old; more than one-quarter is more than 60 years old.   

Mies told the subcommittee “that despite our testimony and our comments about erosion in the enterprise, I want to reassure the subcommittee that because of the strength of the stockpile stewardship program and the great science that is going on in our national laboratories, we still have a safe, secure and reliable stockpile.  That is not an issue today.”

Toward the end of the hearing the witnesses were asked if the current enterprise is “fixable.”  Augustine replied that “it’s probably going to be very difficult to fix,” and said that the panel is examining alternatives, adding “the list of options is not great.”  Mies said that “cultural reform is far, far a greater priority” that must be undertaken by the Secretary of Energy.

Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) concluded the hearing by telling Augustine and Mies that the subcommittee was looking forward to reviewing the final report this summer that will include recommendations, telling them to “be bold.”

Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.