When the House Armed Services Committee finally called it a night on May 10 at 2:20 a.m., its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2013 weighed in at over 500 pages with about $600 billion in planned spending. After another week-long marathon, this time on the House floor, the bill had swelled to over 1,000 pages to accommodate dozens of amendments. Among these amendments—many of which will fly under the public’s radar, on account of the sheer size of the bill—are several that threaten to put at risk the health and safety of countless Americans.
As POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury and I wrote earlier this week, the bill signifies a significant roll back of oversight at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the independent Department of Energy (DOE) agency that oversees the nation’s contractor-operated nuclear weapons labs. This is a troubling move, given the labs’ track record of consistently poor management:
The House NDAA gives the troubled NNSA labs the ability to self-report and self-regulate their performance. It also lowers the bar for health, safety, and security standards by eliminating cabinet-level oversight of the labs by the Department of Energy (DOE) and shifting the power to the NNSA and its contractors. It also weakens the authority of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a panel that provides the only real independent oversight of nuclear safety.
Simply put, this means that fewer checks are in place to ensure the health and safety of the employees who work at the nuclear labs and the residents who live nearby. It also means less scrutiny to ensure that taxpayers who foot the bill for these costly nuclear labs don’t take a huge hit.
Even though the White House issued a statement against these harmful provisions, and even though credible, independent watchdogs from inside the government have pointed out the labs’ problems again and again, House leadership astoundingly blocked voting on a couple of amendments that aimed to stop roll backs of health, safety, security, and financial oversight at the labs.
However, there are signs that opposition to the House’s roll backs is mounting. The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Committee singled out the NNSA in their appropriations bill report this April, highlighting the agency’s tendency to do things like spend 13 years building a $700 million on a new facility before deciding it doesn’t need it after all. The report cautions against giving NNSA too much leeway:
The Committee is concerned about NNSA’s record of inadequate project management and oversight. The Committee is worried that large funding increases will make NNSA more vulnerable to waste, abuse, duplication, and mismanagement if NNSA does not take the necessary steps to address project management weaknesses.
It goes on to express concern that the NNSA hasn’t heeded the advice of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a watchdog agency that has put the NNSA’s management of its labs on its list of “high risk” government programs for 20 years.
Just last month, GAO released a report, assessing DOE’s progress implementing safety reforms. As GAO noted, NNSA’s lab directors had complained that “burdensome safety requirements were affecting the productivity of work” at the labs, and had said that “reducing this burden on contractors would lead to measurable productivity improvements.”
And what was GAO’s conclusion about these reform efforts to reduce “burdensome” safety policies at the labs?
It is unclear, however, whether the safety requirements these [DOE] officials identified were indeed burdensome because DOE and contractor officials we spoke with could not provide clear examples of how these requirements negatively affected productivity or costs or criteria that they used for making a determination that they were burdensome.
What’s more, GAO pointed to the fact that the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board—the independent panel that the House bill wants to weaken—and the DOE’s Office of Inspector General “have repeatedly identified in three key areas—(1) quality assurance, (2) safety culture, and (3) federal oversight” where the labs can improve, but haven’t.
How much longer are DOE, NNSA and its lab going to be allowed to shirk their responsibility to keep their workers—and the public—safe? It’s time to stop letting the labs run wild and ensure that oversight of our nation’s nuclear weapons remains a priority.
Mia Steinle is a POGO investigator.
Image via GXRobinson