Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
After Long Delay, Energy Department Releases Weapons Advisory Committee Report

Gabrielle Kohlmeier

Succumbing to pressure from nongovernmental groups and members of Congress, the Department of Energy has finally turned over a closely held report by an internal advisory committee that critiques the department’s weapons and nonproliferation activities. Although generally favorable toward the “vision and scope” of the strategic plan of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the report questions the prioritization of NNSA activities, as well as several Bush administration initiatives, including enhancing test-site readiness and researching advanced nuclear concepts.

The report, finalized March 1, 2002, is composed of two subcommittee reports of an NNSA advisory panel established to review science and technology programs related to the nuclear weapons stockpile and detection of nuclear weapons proliferation. The Defense Programs subcommittee reviewed science and technology in the Stockpile Stewardship Program, while the Nuclear Nonproliferation subcommittee assessed science and technology in the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation. The NNSA advisory group was created in 2001 by then-NNSA administrator John Gordon, who wanted the committee to reflect diverse scientific and philosophical viewpoints. Among the 15 members of the panel were subcommittee lead coordinators Jeremiah Sullivan and Raymond Jeanloz; James Schlesinger, who has served as secretary of energy and secretary of defense; and physicist and arms control specialist Sidney Drell. But the group was disbanded in mid-2003 by newly appointed NNSA administrator Linton Brooks. (See ACT, September 2003.) Requests for the committee’s reports from both nongovernmental groups and congressional officials remained unsuccessful until March when Global Security Newswire obtained a copy in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The report offers a positive appraisal of various NNSA programs and operations, pronouncing that “there is a great deal that is progressing well.” It does, however, express concerns over certain operational inefficiencies and several individual programs. Particular criticism was leveled at management of the stockpile life extension program as well as at test readiness and advanced-concepts design initiatives, two areas for which the Bush administration has requested large budget increases the last few years. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The panel warned that NNSA’s stockpile life-extension program, which certifies and assesses the performance, safety, and reliability of aging or refurbished weapons, had modified its procedures in a way that risked introducing uncertainties into the reliability of the weapons.

The report also suggested that NNSA claims that the United States would require at least two to three years to restart nuclear testing are exaggerated. Indeed, the report asserts that the committee had been told that, even without additional preparations, the United States might be able to perform a test in as little as three to six months. The report elaborates that test readiness “cannot be further evaluated without considering specific scenarios.”

The NNSA’s advanced concepts initiative, which includes research on low-yield nuclear warheads and so-called nuclear bunker busters, also elicited concern. (See ACT, March 2003.) The report noted that the purported advanced concepts presented to the committee “did not involve any radical departures from previously considered (or even implemented) systems.” It also complained that “concepts that have been discussed quite forcefully in recent times have yet to be examined in sufficient technical depth to determine that their potential military benefits justify the costs involved.” Congressional budget appropriators expressed similar concerns last November when they cut administration budget requests and attached conditions on the release of funds for research for the current fiscal year. (See ACT, September and December 2003.) In its recommendations for improving efficiency, the NNSA advisory committee urged that all new design concepts be thoroughly reviewed.

The reasons for the protracted disclosure of the report to the public and members of Congress remain unclear. In an interview with Arms Control Today, Jeanloz, the lead coordinator of the stockpile stewardship subcommittee, said the panel had “no intent to find fault or to give a pat on the head, but to make a critical assessment.” Jeanloz speculated that the new NNSA leadership may have just wanted to be doubly sure that the report did not contain sensitive information.

On the other hand, Sullivan, the lead coordinator on the defense nuclear nonproliferation subcommittee, indicated that the failure to release the report was part of NNSA’s general discomfort with an outside advisory board. He told Arms Control Today that “NNSA just didn’t know what to do with an advisory committee. Much of what we wanted to do was to establish that [the Energy Department] had valuable resources and expertise that are important to present and future issues of nonproliferation—nuclear and chemical and biological.” Sullivan underscored the significance of the advisory committee’s termination, averring that “every organization of that size and importance needs an independent review.”

Some members have agreed, deploring the loss of a critical, independent review of NNSA programs. In a letter to Brooks, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) cited the disbanding of the advisory committee as an indication that the Energy Department “is seeking to close itself off from any independent outside expert advice regarding its nuclear weapons programs.” No comparable panel has been established to evaluate NNSA programs since the dissolution of the advisory committee last year.