Bomb Plants Could Shift to Control of Pentagon

February 8th, 2009 - by admin

Matthew L. Wald / The New York Times – 2009-02-08 22:54:39

WASHINGTON (February 7, 2009) — The Obama administration is considering whether to shift the management of nuclear weapons production to the Pentagon from the Energy Department, a step that would end more than 60 years of civilian control over nuclear bomb manufacture.

The goal would be to better focus the Energy Department on energy research, production and conservation, central priorities of the new administration.

The White House has ordered the Defense Department and the Energy Department to study the costs and the benefits of transferring two national laboratories that design weapons, the sprawling Nevada site where they can be tested and all or part of four major plants around the country that build and maintain bombs and store weapons fuel.

The idea of the transfer is laid out in a document sent to the two departments by the White House Office of Management and Budget. A copy was obtained by The New York Times. According to the document, the departments are to report by March 2 on how the study will be done, and to complete the work by Sept. 30.

Oversight of the costly cleanup of heavily polluted weapons plants would stay with the Energy Department.

The department was formed in 1977 and immediately assumed responsibility for the weapons program from the Energy Research and Development Administration, another civilian agency. Ever since, the department’s weapons part has dwarfed the energy part.

Changing the status quo would doubtless raise concerns among some, and Congress might not go along. Hazel R. O’Leary, energy secretary in the Clinton administration, agreed that the weapons program was so large that it had turned the department’s energy portion into “the tail, not the dog.” But, Ms. O’Leary said, civilian control is good public policy and a good model for other countries to follow.

Besides, she said, giving the program to the Pentagon would mean turning it over to “an organization whose reputation for management is not stellar.”

But some reasons for keeping weapons manufacture in a civilian agency have disappeared. In 1946, when Congress established civilian control of atomic energy with passage of the Atomic Energy Act, the popular fear was that a military program would result in an uncontrolled arms race, said Robert Alvarez, who was a special assistant to Secretary O’Leary. But the arms race happened anyway, Mr. Alvarez said, and it ended 20 years ago. He said bombs were a distraction from what should be the department’s main work.

Spencer Abraham, energy secretary under President George W. Bush, saw it differently. He noted that the weapons program was now under the control of a quasi-autonomous agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and that “it’s not an agency the secretary is expected to oversee in a day-to-day fashion.” Transferring it now, he said, would be a distraction for an Energy Department trying to jump-start energy work.

A frequent critic of the department, Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said that if transferred, the weapons laboratories would be “even less transparent than they are now” with regard to environmental and security problems. And many lawmakers interested in the weapons program would oppose the change, Ms. Brian said, because it would mean that oversight would shift from their committees to the Armed Services Committees.

“The Hill is never going to let this happen,” she said.

The Energy Department had no comment.

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