Changing nuclear oversight threatens security, tech edge

Changing nuclear oversight threatens security, tech edge
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Now that the 2019 John McCain National Defense Authorization Act has become law, there is a lesson to be learned from a furtive effort to fundamentally change the way the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile is sustained to ensure a reliable deterrent.   

We learned at the eleventh hour that language had been inserted into the Senate-passed bill that would have weakened the management of vital Department of Energy (DOE) national security programs that assure the safety, security and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation, and provide global nuclear propulsion for the U.S. Navy.

Although the language ultimately was removed, Congress should move beyond recurrent attempts to eliminate, or substantially limit, nuclear security leadership by the cabinet member responsible for America’s premier nuclear science and technology enterprise and for the broader national laboratory system that is critical to its success.  


Unbeknownst to most Americans, DOE includes the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its responsibilities for the nuclear weapons Science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program (SBSS), global efforts to prevent and reverse the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons material, and naval nuclear propulsion. This entails safeguards and security, cyber security, emergency management, intelligence analysis, classified information protection and counterintelligence related to nuclear weapons and nuclear materials.

For a number of years, starting with the legislation that created NNSA in 2000, some in Congress have sought to reduce or eliminate the secretary of Energy’s authorities to lead DOE’s nuclear enterprise — an enterprise that has been a core mission of DOE and its predecessors since the Manhattan Project. However, the Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of Nuclear Security Enterprise surprised those who established it by stressing in its 2014 final report the necessity for cabinet-level leadership of DOE’s national security missions, within the department and across the administration.

The panel recognized the imperative that the secretary of Energy “own” the nuclear security mission, and recommended reforming the underlying statutory authorities to more fully integrate the NNSA into DOE. It is time for Congress to accept the recommendation of its own blue-ribbon commission and move on.

Effective deterrence requires that the president and his military leadership, as well as our allies and adversaries, have absolute confidence in the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons and our ability to deliver them on target, should the commander in chief ever reach the momentous decision that their use is needed. Today, the secretaries of Energy and the Department of Defense (DOD) provide cabinet-level complementary and joint advice to the president on all aspects of nuclear security — and the two agencies share what can best be described as “joint custody” for sustained deterrence.  

The DOD has full operational responsibilities, involving nuclear command and control, targeting, and delivery of weapons on missiles, bombers and submarines to their destinations under any conditions. The DOE has a science-based deterrence mission, conducting the design, continuous monitoring and complex “life extension” efforts for the shrinking stockpile of nuclear weapons beyond their original anticipated expiration dates and presumably for decades to come.

The DOE succeeds at this mission through innovative science and engineering. Its stockpile stewardship is carried out principally at three National Laboratories — Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia in New Mexico and California — and at its operational sites in Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Nevada and Missouri. The labs must continually push the frontiers of large-scale computational hardware and software (including work with industry on new architectures); of experimental capabilities that reach extremely high pressures and temperatures relevant to nuclear weapons performance; of incredibly fast imaging at nuclear explosive time scales; and more. Multidisciplinary teams, a core competency of DOE labs, are essential.

In addition to the nuclear weapons labs, major contributions are made to the nuclear security mission by DOE science, energy and environmental national labs, and by the Naval Nuclear Reactors labs. For example, the leading computational and big data capabilities critical to modeling the stockpile are developed jointly by the DOE nuclear weapons and science programs.  Several DOE science labs play leadership roles in nonproliferation.

Furthermore, the weapons labs are themselves multi-mission labs anchored in synergistic science and technology capability. Their scientific vitality depends on research they conduct in addition to the nuclear security mission for the agency’s science, energy and environmental programs, for other U.S. government agencies, and for industry. Indeed, this research often is a gateway for recruiting top-notch scientists and engineers who go on to become key nuclear security contributors.  

In sum, the DOE enterprise is a complex, dispersed ecosystem in which NNSA is embedded.  The NNSA depends heavily on strong secretarial enterprise-wide leadership to ensure that all of DOE’s assets, including the laboratory network, are available to support the “no-fail” nuclear deterrence and proliferation prevention missions. Oversight at the secretarial level is essential to ensuring the strategic integration of all DOE assets to deliver on NNSA’s responsibilities, as well as advising the president regarding the capability of the deterrent to meet current and future threats.  

As members of Congress and their staffs consider the nuclear mission going forward, we strongly urge them to shift their focus away from breaking what doesn’t need fixing to the more urgent challenges of recapitalizing the nuclear weapons enterprise infrastructure, now mostly more than 50 years old, and to providing steady funding to recruit and retain the next generation of scientists and technologists to keep our science and technology edge against aggressive adversaries.  

In this way, DOE will continue to fulfill its obligations to Congress, our military, the American people and our treaty allies to provide a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent for as long as nuclear weapons are integral to our national security. Repeated ill-considered forays by Congress into reorganization of nuclear weapons responsibilities blur the focus on mission execution just as the margin for error is contracting in the face of our aging nuclear forces and an increasingly unsettled world.   

Spencer Abraham, a former Republican senator from Michigan, was secretary of Energy under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.

Ernest Moniz, the founding director of the MIT Energy Initiative, was President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAren't delirious Democrats now accusing Team Obama of treason? Trump won't say if he'd endorse Pence in 2024 HHS restores legal meaning of 'sex' — what will US Supreme Court, Congress do? MORE’s secretary of Energy from 2013 to 2017.

Clay Sell was deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the Department of Energy under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She was President Obama’s Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Arms Control and subsequently served as his deputy secretary of Energy.