Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Congress Slams Nuclear Agency for Recent Failures

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous branch of the Department of Energy is an experiment that has failed. At least that’s what Norm Augustine, former Lockheed Martin CEO and current co-chairman of the congressionally appointed panel to review NNSA governance, told the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee on March 26.

Although the review panel has not yet finished its analysis or issued final recommendations, the subcommittee invited Augustine and his co-chairman Admiral Richard Mies (retired) to give an interim report. The two did not mince words, harshly criticizing NNSA’s recent failures to “deliver weapons and critical nuclear facilities on schedule and on budget,” which has led to lost credibility and trust from national leadership as well as the Department of Defense. According to Augustine:

Simply stated, there is no plan for success with available resources. NNSA is on a trajectory towards crisis unless strong leadership arrests the current course and reorients its governance to better focus on mission priorities and deliverables.

These comments were echoed just one week later by Bruce Held, acting administrator for the NNSA, at a hearing before the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. Held stated: “The secretary [of Energy, Ernest Moniz] and I are in strong agreement with the panel that the model has not succeeded.” He went on to say that the NNSA, along with the Energy Department and their contractors, recognize the problem and are working to fix it. We can only hope that these fixes include stronger federal oversight of both future construction projects and current weapons laboratory activities.

It is certainly heartening to see Congress taking oversight of these issues seriously. For instance Representative Mike Simpson (R-Ind.), Chairman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, didn’t pull any punches when questioning Held about the recent cost overruns, designs mess-ups, and significant delays on recent major NNSA construction projects. Both the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 Complex have faced just such issues. But Held acknowledged these problems and said that the NNSA is now moving toward a “common sense” approach to replacing aging facilities, focusing on working within cost and schedule limitations rather than striving for perfection. Held did not explain why it took the NNSA over a decade to come to this conclusion, all the while flushing millions of taxpayer dollars down the drain on designs for facilities that will now likely never be completed.

But it seems not all congressional interest is focused on the “common sense” approach. Some in Congress, such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), have harshly criticized President Obama’s recent decision to put the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX) construction project at the Savannah River Site on “cold-standby” in his FY 2015 budget.

However, the problems that plague the MOX project should not be glossed over. As with numerous other NNSA projects, the facility is significantly over budget and behind schedule. It was originally supposed to be operational in 2007 at a cost of $1.5 billion, but according to The Center for Public Integrity, a recent Energy Department confidential study found that even though construction is almost completed (seven years after it was supposed to be), finishing the project could cost as much as $10 billion over the next five years. Operations costs could be an additional $34 billion over the next fifteen years.

But one of the biggest problems with MOX is that is has absolutely no potential customers. The facility was designed as part of an agreement with Russia to transform weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for nuclear reactors. However, Shaw AREVA MOX Services, the private company running the program for the Energy Department, lost its only customer in 2008 and hasn’t been able to find even a single replacement. This may be because the use of mixed oxide fuel in certain reactors will require years of safety testing, particularly in light of concerns about the use of the fuel in the boiling water reactor at Fukushima Daiichi.

Moreover, Secretary Moniz confirmed that there are four alternatives to MOX that the Department is exploring. Furthermore, according to the April 4, 2014, edition of the weekly e-newsletter Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor, NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Anne Harrington confirmed that during preliminary discussions, Russia has been receptive to the U.S. changing its plutonium disposition strategy.

Whether the debate and difficulties surrounding these multi-billion dollar construction facilities are the fault of the NNSA, the Energy Department, Congress or, most likely, all three, it is at least encouraging to see that these issues are being brought to light. It is our hope that the NNSA has enough common sense to heed the warnings from Augustine and Mies, strengthen the oversight of its projects, and find alternatives to its boondoggles. Ultimately the mission should be a strong nuclear deterrent that doesn’t break the taxpayers’ bank, and it should be with that goal in mind that Congress and the NNSA move forward.