Defense bill would curb nuclear control

WASHINGTON — The agency that supervises the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile would essentially lose direct Cabinet oversight under legislation that Congress is negotiating.

The little-noticed provision in a defense policy bill is opposed by the Trump administration and senior lawmakers from both parties, but efforts to scrap it have not overcome resistance from staffers on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At issue in the Senate-approved bill is whether the National Nuclear Security Administration remains under the direct control of the Energy Department, where it’s been since its creation in 2000.

The bill would empower that agency to act nearly on its own, freed from what a report by the Senate committee calls a “flawed DOE organizational process” that has led to “weak accountability … insufficient program and budget expertise and poor contract management.”

That report cites a series of delays and cost overruns at the agency, including a contentious project to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium and uranium into fuel for commercial reactors. The cost of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina has ballooned from $1.4 billion in 2004 to more than $17 billion and completion is decades away. The Energy Department has moved to cancel the project, but it remains open — at a cost of $1.2 million a day — amid a legal challenge by the state of South Carolina.

The White House and Energy Secretary Rick Perry strongly oppose the reorganization, saying it would usurp Perry’s authority to set policy in crucial areas and make the nuclear agency’s general counsel independent of the Energy Department’s legal division.

The White House said in a statement that the bill would block the energy secretary from directing civil and national security functions at the agency and “degrade” the secretary’s ability to protect the health, safety and security of employees and the public.

A Perry spokeswoman, Shaylyn Hynes, called the plan “misguided” and said it would “weaken national security efforts by limiting DOE’s critical role in managing America’s nuclear weapons capabilities.”

“It is in the best interest of the safety and security of all Americans to remove this provision from the bill and continue NNSA to be represented by a Cabinet-level official, allowing DOE and NNSA’s complementary relationship to remain strong,” Hynes said.

The NNSA said in a statement that while intended to improve efficiencies, “the changes put forward by the Senate committee would significantly limit the secretary’s ability to fulfill his nuclear security missions and … lead to unnecessary duplication of effort at NNSA for work already being carried out by DOE.”