The Buck Stops Here . . . and Here, Too

February 3, 2011
Nickolas Roth

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was established in 2001 as a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE) in an attempt to improve oversight and management of the nation’s nuclear weapons labs and production facilities.

However, many of the problems that NNSA was intended to solve persist. And don’t take my word for it, search the GAO website for its reports on NNSA; they provide a bevy of concerns, many tied to project planning. When DOE’s FY12 budget request is released on February 14 or so, it will highlight a new approach to addressing some of these issues.

Deviating from past practice, this year’s request will explicitly spell out the Department of Defense (DOD) contributions to NNSA budgets for nuclear weapons. The request will state, “NNSA’s request reflects the partnership between NNSA and the DOD to modernize the nuclear deterrent. DOD has created a separate account for the amounts for weapons activities that are shown in the table below underscoring the close link between these activities and DOD weapons requirements and missions.” (The table is not included in this post.)

The transfer of money from DOD to DOE is a practice signifying the administration’s desire to demonstrate its commitment to the nuclear weapons establishment, and the willingness of Secretary of Defense Gates to put his money where his mouth is. In April 2010, at the release of the Nuclear Posture Review, he announced plans “for nearly $5 billion to be transferred from the Department of Defense to the Department of Energy over the next several years to improve our nuclear infrastructure and support a credible modernization program.”

This new FY12 budget cycle is the first time that DOE’s budget request will include any details about the transfer. While I don’t have the table referred to in the quote above, I do have some numbers: From FY11 through FY15, DOD will spend $5.68 billion of its own money on NNSA nuclear weapons programs. For FY11 alone, DOD transferred approximately $642 million to NNSA for weapons activities. Probably not coincidentally, these numbers are very similar to the budget increases NNSA received from the Obama administration. (And don’t forget these increases made it into the otherwise flat Continuing Resolution that is currently funding the government.)

Since in the past these have been funded out of the DOE budget, there are many in DOD who are not thrilled about now having to spend DOD money on nuclear weapons programs. Because of this monetary commitment, DOD is playing a more active role in deciding what nuclear weapons activities to fund. From what I’ve heard, since DOD has much stricter standards for cost estimates and project justification than NNSA, this new dynamic has already been successful in slowing down some potential DOE boondoggles. And DOD will have more influence over DOE’s decision-making about what programs are needed to maintain the nuclear stockpile.

Currently, nuclear weapons programs are coordinated through a DOD-DOE organization called the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC). While DOD and DOE are supposed to make decisions together about what programs are needed, because DOD was not paying for any of these projects, it let DOE make many of the decisions.

The issue of military vs. civil control of the nuclear weapons stockpile is not new, and goes back to the earliest days of the Manhattan Project. It re-emerged in February 2009 when an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) document calling for a study assessing “the costs and benefits of transferring budget and management of NNSA or its components to DOD and elsewhere” was leaked to the press.

After this document became public, there was immediate response from members of Congress and the press. Senator Bingaman (D-NM) released a statement saying that he thought this approach was “shortsighted” and that he would “fight it tooth and nail if they intend to proceed with it.” The New York Times stated in an editorial published on February 21, 2009, “Transferring the [nuclear] complex to Pentagon control could have unfortunate consequences. The already highly secret complex could lose even the limited transparency currently afforded by Congressional committees that oversee the Energy Department. The national laboratories, which do substantial work for civilian clients, might find their mission narrowed and their ability to attract scientific talent diminished.” The proposal was considered politically dead before the report was ever started.

OMB was considering this issue partly as a way of increasing oversight of the nuclear weapons budget. With the release of the FY12 budget request, this could be an option that preserves civilian control, but applies some of the fiscal and practical restraint of the military.

Whether this succeeds in solving known problems without creating new ones remains to be seen.