House Armed Services Committee Reviews NNSA Management

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Publication date: 
20 July 2012

“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.”