Task Force Urges Broader Role for Nuclear Labs

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

The nation's nuclear weapons laboratories would be spun out of the Energy Department and become the center of an independent Agency for National Security Applications under a proposal to be released today by a bipartisan task force formed by the Stimson Center, a research organization devoted to security issues.

Changing the status of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories and making wider use of the labs for other research would help reestablish and assure "the nation's global science and technology leadership in the 21st century," said the task force report. At present, the labs are directed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is a semiautonomous part of the Energy Department.

"This action would enable the laboratories to remain trusted third party advisors as well as providers of capabilities, but it would initiate a full transformation from a Cold War, industrial age mindset and culture," according to the task force, which was chaired by Frances Fragos Townsend, who was an assistant to President George W. Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism, and retired Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick, who was deputy national security adviser to President Bill Clinton.

The proposal comes at a time when the future of the nation's multibillion-dollar nuclear weapons complex is under review. Congress last year halted a Bush administration plan to develop a new nuclear warhead and delayed an expensive plan to reduce the size of the complex and modernize many of its 50-year-old facilities. Members held up these programs while awaiting development of a comprehensive nuclear strategy that would determine the future size of the nation's nuclear stockpile and the complex needed to build or refurbish it.

A congressionally mandated commission is studying that issue and is to report later this year. The Defense Department's approach to the stockpile's future also will be determined by year's end, when it completes its Nuclear Posture Review. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had ordered the Energy Department and the Defense Department to study the costs and potential benefits of transferring budget and management of NNSA or any of its components to Defense beginning in fiscal 2011.

Though still in its initial stage, the OMB idea of putting the nuclear complex under the Pentagon has already drawn widespread criticism from Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), who is chairman of the House Armed Services strategic subcommittee and whose district includes the Livermore laboratory, wrote to OMB Director Peter Orszag last month opposing the idea. Saying that moving the NNSA into the Defense Department had been rejected in the past, Tauscher wrote that "civilian control over our nuclear weapons laboratories and related facilities was established to ensure some independence from the military."

The Stimson task force recommendations stem primarily from concerns that reduced spending on nuclear weapons would result in a funding cut for the national laboratories at a time when their parent agency, the Energy Department, faces other growing financial demands.

For several decades, in order to draw some of the nation's best scientists, the laboratories have taken on work in addition to dealing with nuclear weapons. The task force said nuclear weapons funding in the lab budgets ranged from 43 percent at Sandia to 60 percent at Lawrence Livermore. But the remainder of the work they do, for the Pentagon, State Department, intelligence community and Department of Homeland Security, helps "to innovate new technologies to help address emerging national security threats."

As currently operated, however, the task force said, the NNSA has to work within "an excessively bureaucratic" Energy Department culture that "has infiltrated NNSA as well," with the laboratories the eventual losers.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company