Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has "a lot of problems" with a congressional plan to create a separately administered agency inside his department to tighten security at the plants and laboratories that design, build and maintain nuclear weapons, a spokeswoman said yesterday.
"The secretary is analyzing the language, but as of now he would recommend the president veto it," said Brooke Anderson, the Energy Department's director of public affairs.
The plan to establish a National Nuclear Security Administration was reached Thursday night by a Republican-dominated conference committee set up to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions of the $289 billion defense authorization bill.
It would be the first major legislative response to months of allegations of Chinese espionage at America's weapons laboratories. It also would mark the first reorganization in more than 20 years of the nuclear weapons complex, which employs more than 30,000 people at the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories; the Pantex plant that produces and dismantles nuclear weapons near Amarillo, Tex.; nuclear materials plants at Savannah River, S.C., and Oak Ridge, Tenn.; the nuclear test site in Nevada; and the Energy Department's naval reactor program.
The congressional plan comes after weeks of difficult negotiations between Richardson and key GOP senators. The energy secretary initially opposed the notion of a semiautonomous nuclear agency. But to avoid even more drastic changes -- such as removing nuclear weapons programs from his department -- he reluctantly agreed to go along with a proposal that passed the Senate two weeks ago by 96 to 1.
The plan approved this week by the House-Senate conference committee, however, differs significantly from the Senate plan that Richardson endorsed. In particular, Anderson said, it deprives the energy secretary of direct authority over employees of the new agency. The secretary could exercise control through the agency's administrator, who would also be an undersecretary of energy and thus a subordinate. But under the current wording of the legislation, the secretary "can't fire, hire or directly order" employees of the new agency, Anderson said.
Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry (R-Tex.), who helped draft the language, said the measure would "establish clear lines of authority and accountability from the nuclear weapons laboratories and production facilities directly to the administrator for nuclear security, who would head the new agency." "With this agree ment," Thornberry said, "Congress is making the reforms that have long needed to be made, and restoring a sense of authority and accountability to the nuclear weapons complex."
But Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said yesterday he did not sign the conference report because its language "blurs the clear lines of authority needed by the secretary."
Levin compared the proposed nuclear agency to the National Security Agency, which is also a semiautonomous organization. The NSA, which collects electronic signals intelligence around the world, is part of the Defense Department, just as the nuclear agency would be part of Energy.
But Levin said the secretary of defense has direct control over all NSA personnel and operations, while the secretary of energy would not have direct control over the nuclear agency. For example, he said, only the administrator of the new agency, and not the secretary of energy, would have authority to establish "special access programs," the most secret nuclear research projects.
Levin also objected that the conference committee plan would result in overlapping responsibilities, because the Energy Department and its subsidiary nuclear agency would have directors of procurement, security and counterintelligence.
"Ironically, the provisions in the conference report may have confused the management and accountability of Energy counterintelligence programs more than they were in the past," Levin said.