Journal Article - Global Beat Syndicate

Back to the Future at DOE

| June 30, 1999

Back to the Future at DOE

by Jennifer Weeks

Like fashion and pop culture, politics often looks back in time for inspiration. This year's touchstones seem to be the '50s and '60s. Stores are full of Capri pants. Austin Powers is shagging across the nation's movie screens. And now Congress is considering reviving a true relic of that era: the Atomic Energy Commission.

Disclosures of Chinese spying at U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories have spurred calls for restructuring the Department of Energy (DOE), which manages the labs. A special panel of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, chaired by former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman, issued a scathing report earlier this month which linked security problems at the labs to "organizational disarray, managerial neglect, and a culture of arrogance" at DOE. The report went on to characterize the department as "a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven it is incapable of reforming itself."

But the problem is not limited to security issues. For decades, nuclear-weapons production sites disregarded environmental protection and the health and safety of workers and neighboring communities -- issues the Rudman Commission did not address.

To correct these shortcomings, the House of Representatives, with a striking disregard for history, voted earlier this month to require a presidential study on alternative ways of managing U.S. nuclear-weapons activities -- including reviving the Atomic Energy Commission.

The irony of a Congress that, for the past decade, has pressed to reduce and streamline government now voting to bring back one of the most insular agencies in U.S. history apparently escaped most members.

From 1946 to 1975, nuclear-weapons production was managed by the AEC with little external oversight. Many of the worst environmental legacies inherited by DOE, such as burying thousands of kilograms of plutonium-bearing mixed waste in shallow trenches in Idaho, Washington, and elsewhere, date from lax practices during this period.

Now the House has essentially endorsed an option offered by the Rudman Commission to assign responsibility for nuclear-weapons production to a new semi-independent agency within DOE, under the direction of an assistant secretary. The Senate is likely to take similar action in the next several weeks.

These measures "put the inmates in charge of the asylum," in the words of Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), who has chaired multiple investigations of DOE mismanagement. Dingell and Rep. Tom Bliley (R-VA), chair of the House Commerce Committee, argue that giving new autonomy to nuclear bureaucrats who have resisted security reforms in the past will make them less accountable, not more. Both congressmen support streamlining DOE and improving oversight, but warn against security fixes that undercut protection of safety, health, and the environment.

Safeguarding the nation's nuclear secrets is not the only responsibility of the weapons complex, although it is, of course, a central one. DOE also has the obligation to clean up the contamination from fifty years of nuclear weapons production (a mission projected to cost $147 billion from 1997 through 2070); conduct ongoing activities in compliance with environmental laws; and protect workers and the public from radioactive and toxic exposure. Historically, more autonomy for nuclear facilities has meant less accountability in all of these areas.

Most important, those charged with developing and guarding the nation's nuclear capabilities have a responsibility to help reduce nuclear arms and stem their global spread. A nuclear-weapons agency like the one envisioned by the House would certainly have opposed President Clinton's decision to sign a comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty in 1996, since such institutions have historically resisted curbs on refining and improving nuclear weapons.

An agency charged with protecting nuclear data at all costs is likely to contest measures that would raise the veil over its operations. This could undermine U.S. efforts to negotiate new controls with Russia over excess warheads and weapon-usable materials, which will require transparency agreements and data exchanges that are carefully designed to protect legitimate nuclear secrets.

Throughout most of the Cold War, U.S. nuclear-production facilities were expected to maintain a vast nuclear arsenal at a high state of readiness. Other issues took lower priority or were not even addressed. Today, the weapons sites and their managers are subject to new legal mandates and public expectations beyond their military mission. Efforts to wall off the nuclear weapons complex from oversight and accountability are likely to fail in the long run, and could undercut environmental and arms-control efforts that are also crucial to the security and welfare of the American people.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Science, Technology, and Public Policy
For Academic Citation: Weeks, Jennifer. Back to the Future at DOE.” Global Beat Syndicate, (June 30, 1999) .

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