Of Note: Hearing on National Nuclear Security Administration

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Publication date: 
2 May 2008

About two weeks ago, the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing with a witness panel rarely seen by the subcommittee.  In addition to National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Tom D'Agostino, the witness list also included all three of the Directors of the weapons labs: Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia.   The discussion was wide-ranging, including the Reliable Replacement Warhead, transformation of the weapons complex,  reduction in laboratory staff, underground testing, the role of science in the laboratories, and worries about math and science education in the nation's schools.  And since this subcommittee has jurisdiction over the DOE Office of Science, indications about the thinking of Senate appropriators about the request for that account.

The Administration requested an increase in the NNSA FY 2009 budget of $321 million to $9.1 billion, which is approximately 36 percent of the Department of Energy's budget request.  Within the NNSA request, $6.6 billion is for Weapons Activity, the remainder being for nonproliferation programs, Naval Reactors, and the Office of the Administrator.

A small line item within the request drew considerable discussion.  Subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-ND) was plain-spoken when discussing the Reliable Replacement Warhead saying "it's not my intention to fund the administration's $10 million request for the RRW in fiscal year 2009."  "The premise behind RRW is that we can produce a new nuclear weapon that is in many cases, safer, reliable and less costly than the current stockpile," he said. "I understand that premise, but I do have some significant concerns about a program that is not set in a construct of an overall strategic defense policy analyzing the impact of such a program on our international nuclear nonproliferation efforts."   Dorgan favors awaiting the results of a congressional panel that is examining nuclear weapons policy, as well as an Administration nuclear posture review that is due by December 1, 2009.   Ranking Member Pete Domenici (R-NM) argued that the $10 million would not be used for production, noting that NNSA Administrator D'Agostino said the money would be used to consolidate previous research results for future administrations. Dorgan and Domenici said they would continue this conversation.

While Dorgan and Domenici disagree about the RRW they are in complete agreement about the value of the national laboratories' staff and their facilities, saying that adequate funding must be provided.  Despite this sentiment, conditions at the laboratories indicate a different outcome.  George Miller, Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory told the senators, "We are not able to fully utilize the experimental facilities that we have built. The effects are already being felt at Livermore, with the reductions associated with last year's federal budget and the costs associated with the [new] contract.  By the end of this fiscal year, Livermore will have reduced its population by more than 2,000 people from the beginning of FY 2007 [10/1/2006]."  He said, "As I look into the future, I'm concerned that the investments that have brought us to this point are not sustained. If they are not sustained, I believe a crisis in confidence will result."  Los Alamos Director Mike Anastasio testified that his workforce was reduced by 2,000 employees in the last eighteen months.  Sandia has seen 200 to 300 employees leave the laboratory, said its Director, Tom Hunter.  In all, the three laboratories have lost around 1,5000 technical people.  Dorgan said, "My interest, at the end of the day, is to maintain a robust workforce in our national laboratories to pursue aggressive new science, because I think that's a significant investment in the future of this country in dozens of areas, not just the issue of certification of nuclear weapons.   So I think that you should know there's a lot of support on this committee for the advancement of science and for the work that you do in your laboratories.  I think the national laboratories are jewels and produce significant opportunities for this country's future."

There was discussion about the transformation of the weapons complex.  D'Agostino spoke of reducing the size of the complex and consolidating special nuclear materials, citing economic and national security benefits.  Doing so would allow NNSA to increase its attention to nonproliferation, nuclear counter terrorism, nuclear forensics, and provide greater assistance to the intelligence community.  Dorgan expressed surprise that NNSA had not proposed the closure of at least one of its eight sites, asking about the reviews of Oak Ridge's Y12 facility and the Kansas City plant.  During his round of questioning, Domenici asked if enough resources were being devoted to sustaining the laboratories scientific excellence.

Regarding the need for future underground testing, Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) asked D'Agostino, acknowledging that no administrator would ever use the word "never," if  "you have any idea in the foreseeable future that you might have" to revert to underground testing.  D'Agostino's replied, "no."

There was an understanding on both sides of the witness table that the national laboratories and their facilities and workforce require attention.  Warned Miller, "the job of stockpile stewardship is not complete.  The weapons are continuing to age and the experienced weapons scientists are continuing to age."  Significant advances have been achieved in computing, and the National Ignition Facility is on budget, on schedule, and has met all of its milestones.  Hunter testified that "the science in the stockpile stewardship has made exceptional progress since its inception over a decade ago."  But there are concerns, Hunter saying, "I think I'd be remiss if I did not note that few threats to this country's future loom as large as our chronic lack of investment in science and engineering and the education systems that support it.  History will not judge our generation very favorably if we do not speak out, if we do not act to significantly change our lack of attention and lack of investment in one of the clear elements that made this country great."  He did say, more optimistically, "One thing we find about these laboratories is they not only have places of excitement because of the work, but they're also places of values and character and they support the national interest, and that brings a lot of the right people to our laboratories.   So I can report, basically, that we're able to get the people we generally need, but the national problem is one that's very significant and one I think all of us can do more to try to help."

There was also discussion about the Administration's budget request and the difficult choices  appropriators will make.  Said Dorgan: "we get a domestic discretionary request in the budget in this subcommittee that says we need to fund the nuclear weapon's programs, the laboratories, science, and, by the way, we want you to cut $1 billion out of water projects. . . . The fact is it doesn't add up.  And so this subcommittee, unless we find some additional funding, is left with a Hobson's choice. And last year we found some additional funding to try to fix some of these problems in the president's budget, but it's a difficult problem and no one here wants to short science.  Nobody on this panel wants to do that. It's just that the president has given us a budget that we've got to fix it because it doesn't work."