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House Armed Services Committee Reviews NNSA Management

Richard M. Jones
Number 103 - July 20, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“We must find a way out of this mess.  Our nuclear deterrent requires an effective and efficient steward.”  So concluded Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces at a recent hearing on the nation’s nuclear security enterprise.

Turner’s observation was offered in his prepared opening remarks for a June 27 hearing on the creation and formative operations of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).  The hearing was shortened due to action on the House floor, and this FYI will review the written testimony of the hearing’s three witnesses: Linton Brooks, former Administrator of the NNSA; Robert Kuckuck, former Deputy Administrator of the NNSA and former Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Gene Aloise, Director of Natural Resources and Environment of the Governmentl Accountability Office (GAO).

The hearing reviewed the early years of the NNSA following its establishment by the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2000.  The Act authorized a “separately organized agency” within DOE for all aspects of the nation’s nuclear security program.  GAO concluded that the lack of a model to follow for establishing this new agency, having DOE officials retain their old position while taking on a new NNSA position (“dual hatting), and unclear formal arrangements for budgeting and procurement “inhibited effective operations.”  Also constraining the new agency in its formative years were interpersonal disagreements that “hindered effective cooperation.”

Problems in the relationship between NNSA and DOE were highlighted in a recent report by a committee of the National Research Council discussed at a hearing held by this same subcommittee in February and a later appropriations hearing. Chairman Turner’s prepared remarks indicated that his concerns are unabated, telling the witnesses and his colleagues “We are gravely concerned about the overwhelming number of studies and reports that have identified the same serious problems at NNSA and the Department of Energy -- including reports that NNSA is ‘broken,’ that ‘science and engineering quality is at risk’ at the nuclear weapons labs, and that ‘it is time to consider fundamental changes’ to the entire organization and construct.”

While most of Brook’s testimony centered on NNSA formative years, he also addressed the more recent past as well as the future.  He told the subcommittee:

“It is important to recognize the limits of what can be accomplished by changing the NNSA Act, although as my earlier testimony submitted to the subcommittee indicates, I favor significant changes. Legislation can empower and enable strong leadership, but it cannot substitute for it. No reforms will succeed without a commitment on the part of the NNSA Administrator – a commitment that I believe exists – to strengthening the organization. In particular, I am deeply concerned by the recent report of the National Academies of Science documenting a serious lack of trust between the leadership of the national security laboratories and of the National Nuclear Security Administration. The Congress cannot fix this problem, but it should insist that the responsible individuals do so. I understand that substantial progress is being made in this area, but it is vital that this committee continue to monitor the situation.”

Kuckuck’s written testimony was similar, discussing his tenure as Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2005 and 2006:

“The financial, morale, and intellectual capital costs of this situation are significant and growing.   Time and again I would hear the words, ‘let’s just go ahead and do it their way, it’s less trouble than trying to do it the right way.’  ‘Their’ could refer to NNSA, DNFSB [Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board], or even other laboratory oversight functions.  As this reaction to the bureaucracy permeates more and more into the science and direct mission work of the laboratories, I am concerned of the price the nation is paying.

“I believe legislation can improve this situation and H.R.4310 [the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2013] is clearly designed and intended toward this end.  I believe many of its provisions could help in mitigating current issues.  However, I believe more will be necessary.  In the language of science and mathematics, the bill may be ‘necessary but not sufficient.’  Legislation cannot impose the judgment for balancing risk and mission that is necessary to succeed.  It cannot impose the culture of trust and respect that is necessary to succeed.  And it cannot impose the leadership necessary for implementing change.  However, it can impose conditions that will facilitate the achievement of these ideals.”

Kuckuck’s conclusion was notable:

“Finally, in the end, I personally believe that complete separation of NNSA from the DOE may indeed be necessary.  The experience of this NNSA-DOE relationship to date would indicate that ‘semi-autonomy’ might be a bridge too far.”

The written testimony provided by Aloise of the GAO was more optimistic.  In summarizing what the GAO found, the Office concluded (paragraph breaks inserted):

“NNSA has made considerable progress resolving some of its long-standing management deficiencies, but significant improvement is still needed especially in NNSA’s management of its major projects and contracts. GAO reported in June 2004 that NNSA has better delineated lines of authority and has improved communication between its headquarters and site offices.

“In addition, NNSA’s establishment of an effective headquarters security organization has made significant progress resolving many of the security weaknesses GAO has identified. Nevertheless, NNSA continues to experience major cost and schedule overruns on its projects, such as research and production facilities and nuclear weapons refurbishments, principally because of ineffective oversight and poor contractor management.

“In some areas, NNSA can be viewed as a success. Importantly, NNSA has continued to ensure that the nuclear weapons stockpile remains safe and reliable in the absence of underground nuclear testing.

“At the same time, NNSA’s struggles in defining itself as a separately organized agency within DOE, and the considerable management problems that remain have led to calls in Congress and other organizations to increase NNSA’s independence from DOE. However, senior DOE and NNSA officials have committed to continuing reform, and DOE’s and NNSA’s efforts have led to some management improvements. As a result, GAO continues to believe, as it concluded in its January 2007 report, that drastic organizational change to increase independence is unnecessary and questions whether such change would solve the agency’s remaining management problems.” 

Aloise concluded his written testimony:

“In light of the substantial leadership commitment to reform made by senior DOE and NNSA officials, and the significant improvements that have already been made, we believe that NNSA remains capable of delivering the management improvements necessary to be an effective organization . . . .”

Concluding his written opening remarks, Chairman Turner stated:

“We must find a way out of this mess. Our nuclear deterrent requires an effective and efficient steward. In the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act, the House has put forward reasonable and prudent solutions that are well-founded in the recommendations of myriad experts and commissions. Now we look to others, including the Administration, for their own proposals. A letter that [House Armed Services Committee] Chairman [Howard] McKeon [(R-CA)] and I sent to President Obama six weeks ago seeking his solutions remains unanswered. While we wait, my hope for this hearing is that by looking to the past, we can help find a clear way forward to the future.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics