Heather Wilson appointed to NNSA review panel

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U.S. House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday appointed former Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., to a new commission that will recommend ways to improve the performance of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency that oversees Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories.

The 12-member commission was established late last year through legislation introduced by Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican who retired at the end of 2012. It was unclear late Thursday who the other 11 commission members will be.

The panel will “assess the feasibility and advisability of, and make recommendations with respect to, revising the governance structure of the National Nuclear Security Administration,” according to the bill that created it.

The commission will make specific recommendations, including how to improve scientific work, safety and employee retention. The panel will also explore ways to diversify the national labs’ missions and 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 the Department of Energy

Wilson’s appoinment comes at a time when the NNSA – now part of the DOE – is under increasing scrutiny 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.

“It (the NNSA) has had a lot of problems,” Wilson said in a Journal interview Thursday. “It cost a lot of money, it’s ineffective and it’s not working. So, in some way it has to be fixed.”

Wilson served 10 years in Congress representing the Albuquerque-based 1st District from 1998 until 2009. She ran for the U.S. Senate last November but lost in the general election to then-Rep. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat. The future of New Mexico’s nuclear weapons labs was a key issue in the Senate race.

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.

Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who chaired the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told the Journal in November that simply shuttering the NNSA 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.”

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who met with NNSA Acting Administrator Neile L. Miller in Washington last month, praised Wilson’s appointment to the commission as “good news for New Mexico.”

“Heather Wilson understands the contributions of our national labs to national security, and I’m glad New Mexico will have such a great advocate at the table,” Martinez said.

In an email to the Journal today, Jay Coghlin, director of Nuke Watch New Mexico, criticized the appointment, noting that Wilson has had private contracts at Sandia in the past and said she would advocate for more bloated budgets at the labs.

“Given the long string of chronic cost overruns and security infractions, diminished federal oversight and greater autonomy for privatized corporate nuclear weapons contractors is the wrong direction,” Coghlin said. “Don’t expect Heather Wilson to help the American taxpayer correct that direction. “