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Defense bill would curb Cabinet control of nuclear agency

WASHINGTON – The agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, in fact, lose direct Cabinet oversight, under the legislation that the Congress is in the process of negotiations.

The little-noticed provision in a defense of the policy is opposed by the Trump of directors and senior lawmakers of both parties, but efforts to scrap not overcome the resistance of the staff members on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At issue in the Senate-approved bill is the question of whether the National Nuclear Security Administration will remain under the direct control of the Energy Department, where it has been since its inception in 2000.

The bill would allow the office to act almost on its own, freed from what a report of the senate committee calls a “flawed DO organizational process” that has led to a “weak justification … insufficient program and budget expertise, and poor contract management.”

That report cites series of delays and cost overruns in the agency, including a cancelled project to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium and uranium into fuel for commercial reactors. The cost of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina has grown from $1.4 billion in 2004 to more than $17 billion, the completion is decades away and the state is mounting a legal challenge to the federal government of the decision until the end of the project.

The White House and Energy Secretary Rick Perry strongly opposed the restructuring, saying it would usurp Perry’s authority to set policy in key areas and make the nuclear agency of the general counsel, independent of the Energy of the legal department.

The White House said in a statement that the bill would block the energy-secretary of management of civil and national security, the functions of the desk, and “demote” the secretary of the ability to the protection of the health and safety of workers and the public.

A Perry spokeswoman, Shaylyn Hynes, called the plan “misguided” and said it would “weaken the national security efforts by limiting DO the key role in the management of America’s nuclear weapons capabilities.”

“It is in the interest of the safety and security of all Americans to remove this provision from the bill and continue to NNSA to be represented by a Cabinet-level official, which doe and NNSA have the complementary relationship to remain strong,” Hynes said.

The leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said the plan was “a big step backwards.”

“To reduce the secretary of the body in such a drastic way …. raises serious questions about the long-term consequences,” Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Murkowski and Cantwell supported Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provision during the Senate debate on the defense bill last month. A later, Cruz attempt also fails on procedural grounds.

The criticism of the nuclear agency is not new.

A parliamentary commission under the leadership of former undersecretary of the Army and retired Navy admiral concluded in 2014 that it had failed in its mission and used to be strong in the private contractors that had turned it into a massive jobs program with multiple functions and a “dysfunctional management and operations relationship.”

The commission, however, support of the current supervision arrangement.

A Senate aide familiar with the reorganization plan suggested it was “a straight-up power grab” by staff members at the nuclear agency and the Senate Armed Services Committee. Agency executives, frustrated by delays which arise when the Energy of the Department of general counsel and other officials do their work to make their case to senate staffers, according to the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The chairman of the commission, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is away from the Capital since December as he fights brain cancer. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the commission, in McCain’s absence, but has not played a role in the nuclear agency dispute.

In its staff-written report, the commission said the proposal was not “an indictment of the current Energy secretary,” but rather an attempt to “address a number of structural barriers” that “damaged the NNSA the ability to carry out its mission.”

A committee spokesman declined to comment, as representatives for Inhofe and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the committee’s top Democrat. Spokesmen for the chairman of the House Armed Services, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, also refused to comment.

Perry told Congress earlier this year that there is a “historically questionable expenditure of the dollar” on the MOX project and other NNSA contracts, but said that the officials were working to ensure the taxpayers “a great return on our investment.”

“We give a good overview,” Perry told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in May, pledging to make of the NNSA and other DOE agencies “as transparent as we can and try to get us the results that this committee wants.”

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, New Mexico-based watchdog group, said that the proposed changes would begin with “the dismantling of the civilian control over the nuclear weapons enterprise.”

Corporate contractors “have already caught NNSA. These changes would gut remained what monitoring and the remote control there is,” Mello said.

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Online:

National Nuclear Security Administration: https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/national-nuclear-security-administration

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