Ambassador Linton Brooks was installed May 16 as administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and undersecretary of energy for nuclear security after his confirmation by the Senate May 1. Brooks, who has been acting director of the semi-autonomous Department of Energy (DOE) agency responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile for nearly one year, officially assumed leadership amid management controversies at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and as Congress moved toward granting approval for new nuclear weapons research.
The most recent controversy stirred at Los Alamos in late November 2002, when investigators discovered that the laboratory could not account for $2.7 million in computers and equipment and thousands of dollars in questionable credit card transactions. The problems subsequently led to the resignation of Los Alamos director John Browne in early January 2003.
Problems with the laboratory’s safety in handling radioactive materials, including piping contaminated with plutonium, emerged April 18 when DOE cited Los Alamos “for violations of nuclear safety rules and procedures” in September 2002. The Energy Department stated that Los Alamos failed “to ensure that previously identified work control problems were effectively identified, controlled and corrected.”
Recent dissatisfaction with the University of California’s management—which has run Los Alamos for the Energy Department since 1943—led DOE to decide April 30 to open competition for the laboratory’s management and operations. The university’s contract expires in September 2005.
During a May 1 House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, members of Congress criticized the department for failing to properly supervise Los Alamos, whose scientists and programs are key to maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons security. Brooks and Deputy Secretary of Energy Kyle McSlarrow were taken to task for poor oversight of the laboratory as the problems unfolded over several months. Representative James Greenwood (R-PA) wanted to know whose “job it was to provide this oversight? And what consequences do they face?”
At the hearing, Brooks said, “I believe that the problem with the department oversight was not primarily failure of individuals, but failure of structure.” In reply, Greenwood stated, “But somebody has the responsibility to create that structure.”
After he was appointed acting director in July 2002, Brooks sought to improve accountability and oversight of NNSA facilities. Brooks noted in a December 18, 2002, announcement of an overall NNSA reorganization that the effort focused on “streamlining operations and oversight while clarifying roles and responsibilities. The new, more responsive organization will improve federal management of our nuclear weapons complex.”
The problems at Los Alamos are symptomatic of broader structural problems that Brooks will confront as head of NNSA. An April 2002 study by the Commission on Science and Security, a nongovernmental panel tasked by DOE to assess the challenges the department faces in managing its science facilities, reported that “DOE’s policies and practices risk undermining its security and compromising its science and technology programs.” A May 2003 report from the DOE Office of the Inspector General criticized the planning mechanism NNSA is employing to plan the rebuilding and improvement of the nuclear weapons complex’s physical infrastructure. The study emphasized that, without reliable site plans, “NNSA may be at risk of being unable to ensure the vitality and readiness of the nuclear weapons complex.”
In addition to existing challenges in the laboratories and NNSA management, Brooks will oversee work to develop new nuclear weapons capabilities and enhance the U.S. nuclear test posture. A three-year study on a robust nuclear earth-penetrating weapon is underway following congressional approval last year. (See ACT, December 2002.) In its fiscal year 2004 appropriations request, NNSA has asked for funding to shorten the preparation time for a nuclear test from as long as 36 months to just 18 months.
Meanwhile, Congress is poised to lift the decade-long ban on researching low-yield nuclear weapons. (See ACT, June 2003.) Brooks supports this initiative to allow scientists greater scope for their nuclear weapons work. Although Brooks testified at an April 8 Senate hearing that “we have no requirement to actually develop any new weapons at this time,” he claimed during a May 15 visit to California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory that such weapons would usefully act as a deterrent by persuading aggressor states that the U.S. nuclear threat is real.