The new head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, has deep experience in nuclear security affairs. At her confirmation hearing, she testified that her top priorities for NNSA are modernizing the agency’s infrastructure and reinforcing its high-skill workforce.
On Feb. 22, Energy Secretary Rick Perry swore in Lisa Gordon-Hagerty as the Department of Energy’s under secretary for nuclear security and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration. NNSA was established in 2000 as a semi-autonomous DOE agency with authority over nuclear weapons activities, which includes oversight of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories.
Gordon-Hagerty’s nomination proceeded smoothly. President Trump announced her selection on Dec. 11, well in advance of her predecessor Frank Klotz’s last day on Jan. 19. After a largely uncontentious hearing on Feb. 8, the Senate Armed Services Committee quickly advanced her nomination to the full chamber, which confirmed it by voice vote on Feb. 15.
Gordon-Hagerty has deep experience in nuclear policy
Gordon-Hagerty has an extensive background in nuclear security and has spent much of her career at DOE.
She received her bachelor’s degree in 1983 from the University of Michigan and went on to study radiological health there, earning her master’s degree in public health in 1986. During her graduate studies, she worked at DOE’s Savannah River nuclear materials production facility. Afterward, she became a health physicist at Livermore. At her confirmation hearing, she said the experience gave her “a great respect for the national security complex.”
Policy became the focal point of Gordon-Hagerty’s career when she took a position on the staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She then moved to DOE, where she rose to become the director of the Office of Emergency Response. That position, which was later folded into NNSA, entailed preparing for nuclear attacks and other radiological threats. She also served for a period as acting director of the Office of Nuclear Weapons Surety.
In 1998, Gordon-Hagerty became the director of a new counterterrorism office in President Clinton’s National Security Council. In the position, her responsibilities included coordinating efforts to prevent and prepare for nonconventional attacks. She remained at NSC into the George W. Bush administration and was deeply involved in its response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Gordon-Hagerty departed the White House in 2003 for the private sector. From 2003 to 2005, she was chief operating officer of USEC Inc., a uranium enrichment company. She left USEC after a corporate restructuring and founded the consulting firm LEG Inc., which included DOE, NNSA, and several national laboratories and nuclear security sites among its clients. She later also served as president of a second consulting firm, Tier Tech International, which focuses on terrorism prevention and response.
Infrastructure modernization, workforce development to be priorities
At her confirmation hearing, Gordon-Hagerty testified that she has two top priorities for NNSA: modernizing the agency’s infrastructure and strengthening its high-skill workforce.
NNSA officials have been routinely citing aging facilities as an urgent problem, and Congress has started to take action. In the most recently enacted National Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed NNSA to establish an Infrastructure Modernization Initiative that would cut its maintenance backlog by 30 percent by 2025.
Asked by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) about her particular infrastructure priorities, Gordon-Hagerty said “number one” on her list is ensuring NNSA has “a sustained capability” to produce war reserve plutonium pits, the explosive cores of nuclear warheads. Currently, Los Alamos has a limited capability to produce pits, and NNSA is now considering either increasing capacity there or building a new facility at the Savannah River Site to ramp up production to meet anticipated needs.
Gordon-Hagerty told Reed she was not privy to NNSA’s recent analysis of alternatives for increasing pit production. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), whose state is home to Los Alamos, asked her to treat the analysis skeptically, saying it had considered an outdated plan for the Los Alamos facility, not the more recently proposed “modular building strategy.” She replied she would “look at all of the relevant data” and objectively assess the problem.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) pressed Gordon-Hagerty on another controversial project, the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. When complete, the facility would convert weapons-grade plutonium into usable nuclear fuel, but the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to discontinue the project due to excessive costs.
Graham noted that in her written responses to policy questions, Gordon-Hagerty endorsed an alternative “dilute and dispose” process. Graham questioned the political viability of dilute and dispose and said he would “fight like crazy” to continue construction of the MOX facility. Gordon-Hagerty promised to “work closely” with him and his staff on the issue.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) asked Gordon-Hagerty to expand on her plans to augment NNSA’s high-skill workforce. She said she plans to visit colleges and universities to encourage students to consider a career at NNSA and that she would also seek to recruit mid-career candidates. She remarked,
There are a lot of people that are burned out, I believe, that are working their jobs every day, maybe even in Silicon Valley, and we can give them opportunities that perhaps they wouldn’t otherwise have, challenges working in high-performance computing, working in cutting-edge science. It’s a wonderful opportunity.
Gordon-Hagerty vows responsible solutions to difficult issues
In her written responses to policy questions, Gordon-Hagerty offered general assurances that she would responsibly address priorities and problems in a variety of NNSA mission areas.
On the subject of safety and security lapses at NNSA, she pointed to her own background as a health physicist as an indication she would “find the right balance” between safety and mission execution. She also stressed the need to avoid managerial and organizational “gaps” that compromise security while reinforcing the need to improve performance.
In response to questions about cost overruns at NNSA facilities, Gordon-Hagerty wrote that NNSA had taken steps to correct its “old way of doing business,” such as better articulating project requirements, improving cost and schedule estimating procedures, undertaking more design and technology development prior to project initiation, planning to meet required delivery dates, and offering contracts that attract top talent and incentivize performance.
Gordon-Hagerty acknowledged the criticisms of contractor oversight made by the Mies-Augustine study panel, the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, and the Government Accountability Office. She wrote she would strive to maintain “timely, transparent, and open communications” between NNSA, contractors, and their corporate parents to improve the oversight process.
Asked about the future of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Livermore in view of the fact it might fail to achieve thermonuclear ignition, she wrote that NIF is “an essential and enduring experimental capability for understanding the physical properties and characteristics of nuclear weapons performance.” She noted that, while ignition remains a “long-term goal,” the facility has a far broader utility.
Concerning nonproliferation-related R&D, Gordon-Hagerty wrote that she would focus on capabilities to detect nuclear proliferation activities at an early stage of weapons development. She also pointed to a 2014 Defense Science Board report stressing the utility of NNSA national testbeds in the development of early detection technologies and in helping other governments validate sensors and methods.
Brent Park, President Trump's nominee to be NNSA's deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, will have his confirmation hearing on March 1. Park, a nuclear physicist, has been head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Global Security Directorate since 2010.