National labs can handle homeland duty

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  July 10, 2002 at 8:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 10 (UPI) -- The Department of Energy's nuclear security efforts and laboratories will be able to meet the needs of the proposed Department of Homeland Security without compromising core duties, witnesses said Wednesday at a Senate hearing.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee called the hearing to understand better how the Bush administration intends to use the Department of Energy's capabilities, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the committee chairman.

"The new department must not just be free, but must be encouraged to draw on needed capabilities wherever they exist, be they in our national laboratories, industry or universities," Bingaman said. "I am also concerned that the administration's proposal does not recognize that the programs to be transferred ... will lack substantial vitality if they are cut off from (their current) larger intellectual and institutional context."

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said he was particularly worried about the prospect of transferring programs to prevent the spread of weapons-grade nuclear material. Such efforts are inherently international in nature, not domestic, he said.

"These nuclear security activities have been successful because of the relationships built between Russian and American scientists," Akaka said. "By putting these functions in the Department of Homeland Security, American participants might be seen as security or intelligence personnel ... I fear, as a result, that the success of our non-proliferation efforts could suffer."

Linton Brooks, acting head of the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, assured the committee the only non-proliferation program slated for transfer deals with evaluating possible nuclear threats. If a program would benefit the Energy Department and the proposed DHS equally, the president's plan calls for joint control, he said.

"Where we can disaggregate and show something is primarily (domestic or not), that's where it will go. At a minimum, our efforts to counter nuclear smuggling are clearly homeland security-related," Brooks said. "(Efforts on upgrading facilities) in Russia remain with me and are not proposed for transfer."

Several NNSA research efforts fit neatly into the homeland security paradigm, Brooks said, including systems to detect chemical warfare agents in subways and a biological agent detector used at the Winter Olympics. About $70 million in such programs is earmarked for DHS, he said.

Bingaman asked how such programs could be easily transferred, given the widely distributed nature of some offices. Brooks replied the shifts would be more along the lines of budgetary control and higher-level supervisors, with most scientists remaining unaware of the change.

"The strength of the national laboratories is that they are syngergistic organizations," Brooks said. "We don't propose to build any walls within the labs, or paint some of them bright green and some of them blue."

The national laboratories also will maintain their traditional duties, said Raymond Orbach, director of the DOE's Office of Science. The labs are, however, working to create a single point of contact with DHS to facilitate communication, he said.

"It will allow the department to reach out broadly, to the unclassified fundamental research community that exists at other laboratories, at our nation's universities and in industry," Orbach told the committee.

Bingaman and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., voiced concerns about the possibility of duplication among the various research and development efforts that would go into DHS. Both mentioned the possibility of giving the new department a single head of research, perhaps unaware the House Science Committee had approved amendments Wednesday to do just that.

The various House and Senate committees are putting together revisions to President Bush's initial legislation creating DHS. Later this month, the Select Homeland Security Committee will meld the disparate amendments into a final bill for congressional approval.

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