WASHINGTON – Sen. Tom Udall wants Congress to create a panel that would suggest ways to reform the National Nuclear Security Administration – the federal agency with oversight of New Mexico’s nuclear laboratories that Udall says is plagued with problems.
The New Mexico Democrat and Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican who will retire at the end of the year, have introduced an amendment to the pending Defense Authorization Bill asking for the establishment of the advisory panel.
The NNSA’s responsibilities include Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories in New Mexico, which together employ about 20,000 people.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who is retiring in January after 30 years in the Senate, told the Journal this month that shuttering the agency completely might not be a bad idea.
“I’ve always had problems with the NNSA as another level of bureaucracy between the secretary of energy and the labs,” Bingaman said. “It doesn’t give me any heartburn to think that we would revisit the decision to set up the NNSA. I think it would make some sense.”
A spokeswoman for Udall emphasized Tuesday that Udall’s amendment is not aimed at dismantling the NNSA.
“He wants this study to be done,” Udall spokeswoman Marissa Padilla said. “That is not part of this study at all.”
“The NNSA has been plagued over the last few years with cost overruns, security breaches and management issues,” Udall said in a statement provided to the Journal on Tuesday. “These issues have impacted the scientific and nuclear stockpile stewardship missions of the national labs in New Mexico and have an impact on national security and safety of the workers there.
“Sen. Kyl and I are working on a bipartisan amendment to create an advisory panel that would make recommendations regarding NNSA reform in order to further its important national security mission,” Udall added.
The panel would “assess the feasibility and advisability of, and make recommendations with respect to, revising the governance structure of the National Nuclear Security Administration,” according to Udall’s office.
The 12-member panel’s membership would be bipartisan, with members appointed from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The members would be appointed for one year and would be responsible for submitting a report within 120 days of passage of the amendment.
A vote on the amendment could come as soon as next week, Padilla said.
She said the panel would make specific recommendations, including how to improve scientific work, safety and employee retention. The study would also explore ways to diversify the national labs’ missions.
Among the directives in the amendment is a requirement that the panel consider whether oversight of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex should “remain with the administration or be transferred to another agency.” Some NNSA critics have suggested the nuclear weapons labs should fall under the purview of the Department of Defense, not DOE.
The NNSA, which is part of the Department of Energy, has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as its budgets have expanded, and some in Congress have questioned the national laboratories’ priorities and performance. Udall and some other members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have repeatedly said the labs should adjust their mission to include more research and development of clean energy technologies.
The NNSA was established by Congress in 2000, after several scandals and security breaches – and with a significant push from then-Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. – as a separately organized agency within the U.S. Department of Energy.
The NNSA is responsible for the management and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation and naval reactor programs.
Padilla also noted Udall’s long-standing interest in forcing the labs to expand their missions to remain relevant in the 21st century. Before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2008, Udall served for 10 years as the U.S. House representative for New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Los Alamos.
LANL’s budget took a big hit this year when Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that DOE was postponing for at least five years a multibillion-dollar plutonium project at the northern New Mexico lab.
Rep. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who will replace Bingaman in the U.S. Senate in January, is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.