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Energy Officials Are Divided Over Nuclear Agency's Future

Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman told lawmakers on Thursday that he and other top DOE officials reject a suggestion from the department’s top security official that it might be prudent to dissolve the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration in the wake of last year’s highly publicized break-in at the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility.

As reported by Global Security Newswire, Health, Safety and Security Office chief Glenn Podonsky last week said he believed the nuclear arms complex operated better when it was directly under the Energy Department’s defense program, prior to NNSA formation in 2000.

Members of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee questioned Poneman about news reports of Podonsky’s remarks during a hearing on nuclear security.

“This is a pretty amazing charge from somebody that you praise and trust and who might not have line authority but has been there a long time [and] knows a lot of stuff,” Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, the panel’s top Democrat, told Poneman. “You all rely on his viewpoint a lot and he’s wondering whether NNSA should even have jurisdiction” over security of the nuclear weapons complex.

Poneman said DOE leaders do not share Podonsky’s view.

“We clearly believe that the structure of having NNSA as the semiautonomous part of the department is the right structure,” Poneman said. “We are fully on board with that and there’s no question about that.”

Cooper suggested Poneman “forget politics for a second” and consider Podonsky’s viewpoint “because right now the department doesn’t have a lot of credibility on the security issue.” He described Podonsky as “a guy who’s been a loyal public servant for 29 years and is trying to express a viewpoint that . . . might not be officially supported by the top brass but” that comes from “a respected individual.”

Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., challenged Podonsky’s view, however, by noting that “a string of recurring security problems” had been reported in the weapons complex prior to the NNSA creation. He suggested that the department should consider firing Podonsky and other federal officials due to security issues that have persisted in recent years. Those problems were highlighted when an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists in July infiltrated a high-protection sector of Y-12 that holds weapon-grade uranium.

“We want to know specifically that you’re willing to terminate people that aren’t doing their job,” Rogers told Poneman. “It sounds to me like this chief security officer might be one of the folks that ought to be on your list to look at.”

Panel members expressed particular interest in the department’s ability to fire employees due to security breaches. Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chastised Poneman for characterizing his question on whether federal officials could be fired in such a circumstance as a “technical legal question” that he was reluctant to answer.

“If you don’t have clarity on this then I think that this committee needs to put something in our next piece of legislation that absolutely makes it clear that if due to the performance of individuals the security system fails it would be an offense resulting in termination,” Turner said.

Rogers told GSN that the NNSA administrator, the associate administrator for defense nuclear security and the head of the HSS office at the Energy Department at the time of the Y-12 incident all “ought to be fired.” However, Thomas D’Agostino has since retired as NNSA chief and Doug Fremont was reassigned from his position of associate administrator for the defense nuclear security as a result of incident. That leaves Podonsky, the HSS chief, as the only one of those three who still holds the position that they did at the time of the incident.

Rogers acknowledged that committee Republicans are “still trying to figure out who in the food chain had the ultimate responsibility” for the Y-12 incident. He said one problem was that the site's security contractor at the time “was notifying lower level management” of defense deficiencies but that the information “wasn’t going up the food chain.”

He said security contractors should perhaps be required to notify all levels of management of such problems.

Armed Services Committee Republicans, however, backed legislation last year that would have significantly limited the ability of Podonsky and other Energy Department officials to influence safety and security policy across the weapons complex. In one change, the legislation would have removed the Energy Department’s authority “to make policy, prescribe regulations and conduct oversight of health, safety and security in the nuclear security enterprise” and would have shifted those authorities to NNSA officials.

Democrats, labor unions and some powerful GOP lawmakers rallied against the legislation, saying the Y-12 break-in showed that, if anything, more DOE oversight was needed.

While Cooper appeared to defend Podonsky, he suggested that perhaps Poneman should lose his job over the Y-12 incident.

“Why do you deserve the chance to keep working at the problem?” Cooper asked the deputy Energy secretary.

For his part, Poneman cited a series of actions the government has taken since the break-in.

“The top three security officials at the headquarters responsible for Y-12 at that time were removed from their positions and the two top federal officials at the site were removed from their positions,” Poneman said. “The contractor that actually had the boots on ground … was terminated full out” and “the top two officials at the management and operations facility … were also retired and taken out of the picture.”

He added: “Everybody in that chain of command from the individual responders to the senior officials responsible for security specifically at that site were removed.”

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