In a surprise decision, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) shut down an advisory committee established to review the agency’s research and development portfolio and make recommendations for strengthening its science and technology work. The action drew harsh criticism from several members of Congress.
The committee, which was created June 25, 2001, had a two-year term for its work, and the NNSA decided not to renew it. Committee members included physicists and other scientists with technical knowledge about nuclear weapons, as well as former government officials and experts with experience on a complex range of nuclear policy issues. The committee was created soon after the NNSA was established as a semi-autonomous agency of the Energy Department, when General John Gordon—the first head of NNSA—tasked the committee to “provide advice and recommendations on matters of technology, policy, and operation.” The charter also indicated that the advisory group “is expected to be needed on a continuing basis.” The committee met five times during its two-year term.
The committee’s termination occurred soon after Ambassador Linton Brooks was sworn in as NNSA’s administrator in May. (See ACT, June 2003). According to NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes, the group’s members should not have been surprised by its termination because federal advisory committees stand only for two years unless a specific renewal request is made. He added that, in the absence of the committee, the Nuclear Weapons Council—comprised of Brooks and two officials from the military and the Defense Department—will continue to develop guidance on nuclear weapons policy. “Ambassador Brooks has no shortage of advice,” Wilkes said.
Some former committee members disagree. “A committee like this was a very useful thing for NNSA to have,” Raymond Jeanloz, a University of California professor of planetary science, told ACT August 20. He explained that the committee provided analysis, recommendations, and constructive criticism for the agency. “We made recommendations that ended up being implemented. And we served a ‘checks and balances’ role,” he said.
Sidney Drell, a Stanford University physicist on the committee, had harsher words about the group’s lapse. “I presume they did not value us or found us a nuisance,” he said, according to a July 31 article in The Guardian.
Congressional objections drew attention to the committee’s demise. Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) blasted the decision in a July 29 press release. “[I]nstead of seeking balanced expert advice and analysis about this important topic, the Department of Energy has disbanded the one forum for honest, unbiased external review of its nuclear weapons policies,” he said.
Markey also sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, asking for an accounting of the committee under the rules governing groups established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The letter called for copies of the group’s final report to be provided to the Library of Congress; asked whether the committee fulfilled its mandate after holding only five meetings over the two-year term; and inquired how NNSA’s administrator will be advised in the future on complex technical and policy issues in the absence of “the only independent contemplative body studying nuclear weapons.”
Despite Markey’s efforts, NNSA continues to guard the committee’s final report. After his office requested copies, NNSA officials sent the final document to its Office of General Counsel, where it awaits further review by the agency. NNSA refuses to estimate when the report will be publicly available.
Jeanloz said he was “surprised” by the department’s decision to withhold the report, which he said was entirely unclassified. “I can’t think of anything in the report that would be detrimental or negative for the current NNSA leadership or NNSA in general,” he said, adding that refusing to issue the report “may make the document seem far more provocative than what it concludes.”