WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- President Obama's visit to the Energy Department Thursday was in danger of being overshadowed by a growing row over a proposal to strip the department of one of its crown jewels -- the agency that builds and guards the nation's nuclear weapons.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has asked officials to evaluate the costs and benefits of moving the National Nuclear Security Administration -- and the Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories it owns -- to the Defense Department.
Lawmakers from New Mexico, where two of the three labs are based, are girding for a showdown with the administration if it pushes ahead with the controversial plan, which will be evaluated as part of the Fiscal Year 2010 budgeting process, and would -- if approved -- go ahead in FY 2011.
"I strongly disagree with the proposal," Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement, adding he had "expressed my opposition directly" to OMB Director Peter Orszag. An aide said Udall spoke Wednesday by phone with Orszag and also was seeking to raise the issue personally with Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Udall said moving the labs would interfere with efforts to broaden the scope of their activities to encompass other key national issues like nuclear non-proliferation, renewable energy and homeland security.
"For decades these laboratories have provided world-class research and development, contributing not only to our national security but to countless innovations that have benefited our economy and our well-being," Udall said. "Moving the labs … would change the fundamental mission and purpose of the labs, and would discourage exactly the kind of science that is now most needed."
Fellow Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico added that the plan reopened an issue that had been settled policy since the earliest days of the nation's nuclear weapons program under Robert Oppenheimer.
"The idea of whether the military or civilians would be stewards of our nuclear stockpile was debated as far back as 1946," said Bingaman, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "It was decided then that it was best for civilians to have that control. I believe it remains the right decision today, and several blue-ribbon panels over the past 20 years bear that out," he said.
The National Nuclear Security Administration was established by the 2000 Defense Authorization Act as a semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy. "It was a compromise between (President Clinton's Energy Secretary Bill) Richardson and the Republicans in Congress" who wanted to pull the nuclear weapons complex out of the department altogether, said a former Energy official who asked for anonymity.
In addition to building and managing the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, the agency is also responsible for nuclear non-proliferation efforts abroad and the response to nuclear emergencies. The three national labs are among eight weapons research, production and testing sites the agency operates nationwide.
Officials at the Office of Management and Budget and the NNSA declined to comment on the proposal, but a copy of the memo was posted by a blogger who closely follows developments at one of the labs, and its authenticity was independently confirmed by United Press International.
The memo says the evaluation should be co-chaired by the departments of Energy and Defense and should involve consultation with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and "other major stakeholders in NNSA operations."
It says the evaluation must be reported to OMB and the National Security Council in four stages, finishing by September.
The former Department of Energy official said the proposal likely would cause "some unease" within the agency.
"The Department of Energy has a very strong heritage of scientific leadership and ... managing complex scientific programs," former NNSA Deputy Administrator William Tobey told UPI. "Changing that would introduce a level of risk … risk that projects might not succeed (or) that (staff) might go elsewhere."
Tobey said the $9 billion budget for the NNSA was a "substantial amount" of the Energy Department's budget but would be only "a very, very small proportion" of the total budget in the Defense Department, which would mean the agency would be "less likely to get the attention and focus it needs."
He added the NNSA's civilian status "probably helps, at least to a degree," with the relationships the agency requires to carry out its non-proliferation work. NNSA administers the Nunn-Lugar program, known formally as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, under which the United States funds and supports efforts to eliminate or make safe nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.
Most observers seemed uncertain of the proposal's origins or its objectives. Although there has been much discussion about the exact nature of the agency's relationship with the Energy Department, several previous studies have examined and rejected the idea of moving it into the Defense Department.
"The last group of thoughtful people who looked at that decided it wasn't a good idea," Linton Brooks, who led the agency until January 2007, told UPI, referring to a study published in December 2006 by the Defense Science Board.
One danger of such a move, he noted, would be that "the nuclear weapons program becomes a bill-payer" from which money is chiseled away for other needs. "How well would (the program's) niche capabilities fare" in such a huge department? he asked.
But Brooks also cautioned that the memo only ordered an assessment of the proposal. "I've been involved in one capacity or another in the first year of three or four administrations," he told UPI. "New administrations look at options … that's what they do. … Whether they follow through with them or not is a different matter."
Whatever its eventual fate, the proposal looks sure to touch off another round of debate about the correct status of the NNSA. Bingaman, for one, said he believes "we should take a closer look at whether NNSA is working and whether we ought to better integrate the labs back into the Department of Energy."