After holding off for nearly two months, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has sent Congress his plan for a new, semiautonomous agency to run his department's nuclear weapons programs.

The plan sent Friday calls for the director of the new National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), who will also serve as an undersecretary of energy, to be appointed and confirmed by March 1.

The reorganization, which comes in the aftermath of allegations of Chinese espionage at the nuclear weapons laboratories, was designed by Congress to tighten security by giving the new agency autonomy from the rest of the Energy Department, particularly its directors of security and counterintelligence.

Under Richardson's plan, those jobs in the new agency will be held concurrently by the department's counterintelligence chief and security czar, both of whom were hired after concerns were raised about potential spying. Thus, retired Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, the Energy Department's new director of the Office of Security and Emergency Operations, will serve concurrently as NNSA's chief of Defense Nuclear Security. And Edward J. Curran, the FBI's former counterintelligence expert who joined the department in late 1998 as director of counterintelligence, will serve concurrently as NNSA's chief of Defense Nuclear Counterintelligence.

Richardson's plan gives NNSA its own general counsel but says that some other Energy Department employees will serve concurrently in positions inside and outside NNSA. For example, the department's assistant secretary for environment, safety and health will be assigned or appointed to a position inside NNSA with "authority to shut down NNSA facilities or activities in circumstances where a clear and present safety danger exists."

The plan also keeps broad authority over the weapons complex with the department's current field operation offices, which are incorporated into NNSA. New positions of field managers also will have responsibility for the Energy Department's nonweapons programs.

Richardson said that with less than one year remaining in his term as secretary, NNSA's final structure will have to be reexamined by the next administration.

Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry (R-Tex.), one of the authors of the NNSA plan, said that Richardson's proposal "falls short by attempting to shoehorn the [DOE] bureaucracy into the NNSA management structure by 'dual-hatting' department employees."

The legislator, whose district includes the Pantex nuclear weapons facility in Amarillo, said "this [approach] runs counter to the spirit and intent of the law."