Report Flags Weapons Lab Oversight

Duplication, formality and 'a culture of audit and risk avoidance' cited.

A new National Academies of Science report released Tuesday flags some concerns about how the Energy Department oversees its nuclear-weapons laboratories, rekindling debate over controversial proposals by some House Republicans to scale back that oversight.

The assessment identifies some issues “that, if not addressed, have the potential to erode the ability to perform high-quality work at the laboratories,” which include the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

Overall, though, the “science and engineering capabilities that underpin the nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship and nonproliferation missions at the nation’s three national security laboratories are ‘healthy and vibrant,’” according to a summary of the report.

The NAS panel that authored the document “found no problems with the quality of science and engineering that would prevent” the labs from ensuring that the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons is reliable.

Since the United States declared a moratorium on nuclear-weapons testing in 1992, one of the key functions of the labs has been to ensure that the country’s atomic arms remain safe and reliable without actually detonating warheads.

The NAS report says the cost of doing some of the experiments necessary to perform this function is rising, and it blames this in part on what it says is excessive oversight by the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration on the private contractors that run the labs.

“If the current degree of operational oversight continues, too many experiments will be unaffordable, and that would be very damaging to the quality” of science and engineering at the labs, the report says. “Factors driving experimental costs include the loss of trust, excessive duplicative oversight, formality of operations, and a culture of audit and risk avoidance.”

The NAS panel suggests that when determining the necessary amount of oversight, “the risks inherent in doing an experiment need to be brought into balance with the benefits of doing the experiment and the associated risks of not doing the experiment.” It notes a related NAS report issued last year made similar findings.

The Republican leadership of the House Armed Services Committee cited that prior report when it inserted several controversial provisions into its draft of the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. The provisions would have streamlined DOE oversight, including by removing the department’s authority “to make policy, prescribe regulations and conduct oversight of health, safety and security in the nuclear security enterprise.”

Senate Democrats and House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans ultimately stripped the proposals from the fiscal 2013 bill. Lawmakers expressed particular reservations over scaling back government oversight of the nuclear-weapons complex after an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists broke into the Y-12 National Nuclear Security Complex in Tennessee.

This year, reforms proposed by House Armed Service Committee Republicans are not as ambitious, but their version of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill does include some controversial provisions regarding lab oversight.

One such provision would require the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to conduct cost-benefit analyses of any recommendations it makes, upon request from the Energy secretary. Democrats have raised concerns that conducting such analyses would drain resources from the safety board and limit its ability to conduct oversight and make recommendations on how to improve safety and security across the weapons complex.

The Energy Department, which has a much larger budget and staff, would be better suited to conduct such analyses, Democrats contend.

Similarly, critics of the House Armed Services proposals believe the department also has the ability to conduct the type of cost-benefit analyses that would determine the proper level of oversight for laboratory experiments -- as recommended by the new NAS report -- without adopting the controversial statutory changes that GOP committee members have proposed, a Capitol Hill staffer told Global Security Newswire.

Congress pushed the Energy Department to do these kinds of appraisals in the version of the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill that ultimately became law, noted the Capitol Hill aide, who asked to remain unnamed, lacking authorization to discuss the issue publicly. While the department has the ability to do these reviews, it needs to work out the details with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the staffer said.

According to the congressional aide, such reviews would enable the department to focus its oversight efforts more on the problems that are most likely to arise from lab experiments, rather than the worst-case scenarios. The type of oversight rollbacks proposed by House Armed Service Committee Republicans would be too extreme, the staffer asserted, given the inherent dangers associated with conducting experiments using plutonium and other sensitive materials.

While the NAS report is correct to point out the issue, the GOP committee members’ proposals are not the solution, the aide argued.

House Armed Service Committee Republicans “will go, ‘See, well, we told you so,’ but the DOE has these probabilistic tools, they’ve just got to work with DNFSB to say, ‘Look, this is the most likely event, this is the least likely event … not the 1 in 10 million kind of thing,” the staffer said.

The House Armed Service Committee did not respond to requests for comment by press time.