New Agency Offers Nuclear Security, Environmental Insecurity

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 12, 2000 (ENS) - On March 1, the United States will turn over management of eight nuclear weapons laboratories to a brand new federal agency. The new National Nuclear Security Administration, created in response to heightened concerns over the security of the nationís nuclear weapons program, will occupy a prickly middle ground between national security and post Cold War transparency.

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Richardson visited Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to tell employees that it was time to move away from the emphasis on security and return to an emphasis on science (Two photos courtesy LLNL)
On May 11, 1999, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson directed the most far reaching security reorganization in the history of the Department of Energy (DOE). The move came on the heels of accusations that lax DOE security measures had allowed spies from China to steal sensitive information from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But Congress wanted a new security agency that would be autonomous from the rest of the DOE. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, signed in October by President Bill Clinton, directs the DOE to help build its own successor in matters of national security and counterintelligence. The new agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), sets up a fire wall between weapons research and development and the DOEís non-defense research projects, which are often performed at the same facilities.

Last Friday, Richardson took two steps toward the establishment of the NNSA. He delivered to Congress the DOEís Implementation Plan for the new agency, and met for the first time with the panel charged with conducting a search for a qualified Under Secretary for Nuclear Security.

"We are committed to implementing the NNSA and ensuring that the national security mission of the department is met," said Secretary Richardson. "A key step is identifying a candidate with the right experience and background to lead this agency. Today, the search committee and I discussed the type of experience and leadership qualities we would like to see embodied in the Under Secretary. A strong national security background is essential as a qualification."

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During the Cold War, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) performed research that led to the first atomic bombs
The new agency, which takes up the national security reins on March 1, does not yet have a leader. Richardson is serving as interim leader until an Under Secretary for Nuclear Security is named.

The NNSA Act also created a position for an Under Secretary to oversee the energy, science and environmental management programs of the DOE. This position, which will be filled by current DOE assistant secretary Dr. David Michaels, will carry the authority to shut down a facility if a clear health and safety issue arises, the DOE says.

According to the Implementation plan, "cleanup and environmental management at existing waste sites is not the function of the NNSA," and these functions will continue to be carried out by the DOEís Office of Environmental Management (OEM). However, "management of newly generated wastes at NNSA laboratories and facilities is the responsibility of the NNSA, but is not necessarily an NNSA function." The plan anticipates that such wastes will also be managed by the OEM under unspecified arrangements.

As required by the NNSA Act, the following national laboratories and nuclear weapons facilities will report to the Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs:

In addition, the NNSA will oversee certain activities at other DOE run facilities, including Naval Reactors Program testing at the Advanced Test Reactor of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), and NNSA work being performed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Many critics of the new agency say the NNSA has been given too much authority over non-defense programs, and may hamper the free exchange of information that helps to advance research - and reassure the public.

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Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico is working on a way to produce produce rapidly repeated thermonuclear explosions with peacetime applications (Photo courtesy Sandia National Laboratories)
"As the department implements this plan, it is very important that our across the board scientific work and collaboration, which encompasses all of the department's research facilities, not be compromised by the NNSA's creation," said Richardson. "We must work to ensure that all of the missions of the department have access to the technical expertise and specialized facilities at all of the laboratories and sites."

Richardson, who will have at least titular oversight of the NNSA, resisted creating the DOE implementation plan until Senator Pete Domenici agreed to work to change the NNSA Act to clarify and ensure that the Energy Secretary has clear lines of authority and responsibility over the new agency.

Domenici, Republican from New Mexico, is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which funds the national laboratories. Domenici has been a staunch supporter of the NNSA, and a critic of the DOEís management and security measures.

"For the first time in history, there will be alignment between authorities and responsibilities within the department," Domenici said Monday. "Multiple directives from the many fiefdoms within the department will finally be avoided. Orders will now be evaluated and implemented by personnel supporting national security missions. Iím excited about the new NNSA. Ö It can dramatically reduce the bureaucracy and micromanagement that has stifled many programs."

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New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici exercised considerable control over the shape of the NNSA Act (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Domenici also issued a warning to Richardson to avoid attempts to wrest too much control from the NNSA. "Iíve noted that if the department fails to implement the semi-autonomous agency carefully, they will leave Congress with no alternative other than to create an independent agency," he said. "Iím pleased Secretary Richardson is moving forward, and pledge to work with him to see that the job is done as Congress intended."

Announcing the release of the NNSA implementation plan, Richardson emphasized his continued concern that the new agency place appropriate importance on the labsí basic science missions, and on human and environmental health and safety.

"Recognizing our critical national security mission and the importance of establishing a workable, efficient NNSA, we have spent three months carefully developing a plan which outlines the core principles on how we will set up this new agency," explained Richardson. "This plan will help guide us as we work to ensure that the weapons laboratories continue to perform scientific research for non-defense Energy Department programs and other government agencies, and that the NNSA operate in a manner that protects the environment and the health and safety of workers and the public."

President Clinton also expressed concern last year that environmental oversight and other non-weapons priorities would get short shrift under the new agency. When he signed the legislation creating the NNSA, which was part of a popular defense budget bill that also increased pay for members of the armed services, the President said he was unhappy that the NNSA will deprive Richardson of direct control over sensitive classified programs, and urged Congress to amend the law.

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Among the peacetime accomplishments of Los Alamos National Laboratory: the development of luminescent tags to detect and identify biological and chemical agents (Photo courtesy Los Alamos)
In September 1999, more than 40 state attorneys general from the National Association of Attorneys General signed a letter warning Congress that the NNSA could override state control over environmental issues at the national labs.

"DOE has contaminated thousands of acres of land and billions of gallons of groundwater. Much of this land and water will never be cleaned up," wrote the attorneys general. "Instead, states and the federal government will have to ensure these contaminated areas remain isolated or contained for hundreds or thousands of years."

Sally Light of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (CARE), a Lawrence Livermore watchdog group, said she fears that the new agency will blackout information needed by groups like hers to successfully monitor the activities of nuclear labs.

Light worries that community groups could lose access to reports about lab activities like hazardous waste disposal. Private groups might also lose the ability to bring lawsuits or other environmental enforcement actions against sites like Lawrence Livermore, she said.

Tri-Valley CARE is particularly concerned because Lawrence Livermore is building a new, multi-billion dollar National Ignition Facility, a giant laser that will bombard radioactive deuterium and tritium to create tiny nuclear explosions. Lightís group fears that the new equipment, which will be used to test nuclear weapons materials as well as for non-weapons research, could lead to additional contamination at Lawrence Livermore, which is already a federal Superfund site.

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The National Ignition Facility target chamber, under construction (Photo courtesy LLNL)
"Livermore's rainfall is already heavily polluted - tritium has been measured at seven times the allowable limit for drinking water," warns the group. "NIF will almost certainly increase LLNL's tritium handling and tritium releases."

With oversight of such wastes ill defined, and Congress pressing for tighter control than ever over information released from nuclear labs, Tri-Valley CARE and other watchdog groups face a difficult task in their campaign to protect the public and the environment around the nationís nuclear facilities.

The DOE's NNSA Implementation Plan is available at: http://www.doe.gov/news/nnsa.pdf