Holding the Government Accountable

Is Rick Perry Ready for Nuclear Stewardship?

(Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The general public could be forgiven for not knowing that a huge portion of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) mission is to build and maintain the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. When we think of national security, we think of the Defense Department, not the DOE. But it is, in fact, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and their army of contractors who build nuclear bombs and ensure the nuclear material is safe and secure. Some are wondering whether Rick Perry, former Governor of Texas and Dancing with the Stars contestant, is ready to take on the nuclear arsenal.

Tomorrow, Perry will appear before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to answer that question, among others.

Of the Energy Department’s $32.5 billion budget for FY 2017, approximately 60 percent will be used to ensure the nuclear arsenal is safe, secure, and reliable. (The rest of the budget pays for the remainder of the Department’s work, with 20 percent allocated to energy research and development including innovations in energy efficiency and renewable energy, fossil energy, and nuclear energy, and approximately 17 percent allocated to the operation of several cutting-edge scientific facilities where employees study physical sciences and develop technological innovations.)

Despite the fact that nukes get the biggest slice of the DOE pie, the Project On Government Oversight found there was a distinct lack of attention paid to nuclear security and the problems facing the NNSA in the past two confirmation hearings for DOE Secretaries. Out of hundreds of questions, only a handful were related to NNSA’s stockpile stewardship mission.

Perhaps this is because Steven Chu was the co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics before joining the DOE, and Ernest Moniz was the founding Director of an MIT energy initiative studying the technology and policy of nuclear power, coal, natural gas, and solar energy.

Meanwhile Governor Perry’s experience is more political than scientific, although, as the former Governor of Texas he should at least be familiar with the NNSA and its work: Amarillo, Texas, is the home of the Pantex Plant, “a cornerstone of the nuclear weapons complex” where the final assembly and disassembly of nuclear bombs takes place. In the past few years the plant has struggled with labor disputes that culminated in a large scale strike, raising concerns about the security of our arsenal.

The NNSA’s sprawling complex of nuclear laboratories, production sites, and facilities stretches across the country and each location has a distinct part to play in the $12.9 billion enterprise that is stockpile stewardship. It is POGO’s hope that the Senate will pay nuclear security the attention it needs at Governor Perry’s confirmation hearing. Below are several areas worth examining during the hearing.

DOE/NNSA Contractor Management at High Risk for Fraud, Waste, and Abuse

How will Governor Perry ensure that the contractors in charge of executing DOE and NNSA missions are spending taxpayer dollars responsibly? Does he believe the Department should continue to rely so heavily on contractors?

The DOE and NNSA rely primarily on contractors to do the work. As the largest civilian contracting agency in the federal government, DOE has contractors who manage everything from the construction of new buildings to the security of nuclear facilities. Yet DOE’s contractor management has been on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) list of programs at high risk of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement since 1990.

In 2009, DOE’s Office of Science was removed from the list and GAO narrowed the focus to NNSA and the Office of Environmental Management, which handles the clean-up of legacy nuclear sites. These two offices are notorious for contractor mismanagement leading to under-estimating and over-spending on nuclear related projects.

A perfect example of this can be found in the construction of a nuclear fuel production facility called the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX). MOX was originally conceived as part of an agreement between the United States and Russia in which each country pledged to dispose of weapons grade plutonium. The United States would build MOX to turn the weapons grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. It was estimated the facility would be completed by 2007 and cost around $1.6 billion. Now, 14 years after the program began, the DOE has spent over $5 billion and the facility isn’t yet built; the cost for completing construction alone has skyrocketed to $17 billion and might be ready for operations by 2048—41 years behind schedule. Moreover, even if completed, the facility will likely never work, has no potential customers, and just last year Russia formally withdrew from the agreement.

How did the situation get so out of hand? Poor contractor management by the DOE. The contractor in charge of MOX construction, CB&I AREVA MOX Services, is running the project on a 25 percent rework rate, meaning approximately a quarter of the work already done will have to be re-done—the project takes one step back for every four steps forward.

$1 Trillion for Nuclear Modernization

How does Governor Perry envision the future of the nuclear deterrent, and what are the strategic and financial implications of that future? Would he support a joint effort by the Office of Management and Budget, DOE, and Defense Department to produce an annual integrated nuclear deterrent budget with comprehensive estimates for the life-cycle costs of the new systems in development?

The United States is currently on a path to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to maintain and modernize the nuclear arsenal. At its peak, this plan will cost taxpayers an amount comparable to the Reagan administration’s nuclear build-up during the Cold War. Nuclear modernization will include the purchase of new delivery systems like strategic submarines and bombers, life extension programs and enhancements for nuclear bombs and warheads, and the maintenance and upgrades for NNSA’s facilities.

Yet few public officials have spoken openly about how much this nuclear modernization effort will cost or exactly how much of it is necessary for national defense. Experts have studied the modernization plans in place and have estimated that it will cost $1 trillion but there has been no official estimate from the DOE, the Defense Department, or the Office of Management and Budget.

The $1 trillion estimate is likely too low: DOE is notorious for its cost overruns and delays, two problems that will greatly increase the final cost.

Consolidating the Nuclear Weapons Complex

Governor Perry has previously stated that he supports reducing excess government, even recommending doing away with DOE altogether. Does he think the nuclear weapons complex appropriately sized? What does he think about the numerous recommendations to consolidate the nuclear weapons complex, and what will he do about them?

The NNSA manages nine sites across the country, many of them storing or facilitating the handling of weapons grade nuclear material. And some of these sites have terrifying security vulnerabilities, as demonstrated when, in 2012, three nuclear protestors—including an 82-year-old nun—broke into the Y-12 complex where the nation’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium is stored.

Unfortunately, even these less-than-airtight facilities are not the constant homes of the nuclear weapons and material. For instance, when a nuclear weapon is dismantled at the Pantex Plant in Texas, the uranium portion of the bomb is then transported to Y-12 in Tennessee for further processing. That means these nuclear materials are transported over 1,000 miles on public highways.

The DOE Inspector General, as well as several independent reviews by DOE advisory boards dating back to 1995, have recommended consolidating the nuclear weapons complex. In 2011, a Defense Department memo harshly criticized DOE’s reluctance to downsize its nuclear complex by highlighting the fact that DOE labs are incredibly expensive, noting that DOE has maintained its oversized Cold War infrastructure while the Defense Department closed 21 laboratories between 1988 and 2005, and quoting former White House officials stating DOE’s complex is “bigger and more expensive than it should be.”

When bomb-grade nuclear material was removed from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in 2012, NNSA estimated that doing so saved taxpayers approximately $40 million per year.

As we prepare to hand the reins of the Energy Department to Governor Perry, it is absolutely vital that we remember this includes the entire nuclear weapons complex. With the safety of our nuclear weapons stockpile and billions of taxpayer dollars a year at stake, the public deserves to know how he will handle nuclear weapons.