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Senate measure would diminish civilian control of nuclear weapon production

A Nuclear Warning Sign.

MARK BOSTER/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By WILL ENGLUND | The Washington Post | Published: June 30, 2020

Since its inception in 1977, the Department of Energy has been responsible for managing America’s nuclear weapons, but a bill now before the Senate would strip the department of much of its budgeting authority over nuclear arms and hand it over to the Pentagon.

The measure has drawn quick criticism — even from within the Trump administration. Senators from both parties have joined Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette in arguing that the measure would upset the balance between civil and military officials regarding the country’s nuclear weapons program, and would represent an unacceptable subordination of the Department of Energy to the Department of Defense.

“Holy cow, this is a big fight,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Tuesday in an interview. She believes that the Trump administration, over the objections of Brouillette, wants to direct more of the department’s money to building nuclear weapons, at the expense of cleanup programs and civilian uses of nuclear technology.

Her state is home to the Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear complex that is undergoing a lengthy cleanup, at a cost of $2 billion per year. She doesn’t want to see that financing stream cut.

The bill is the defense authorization act for 2021, on which a vote is expected this week. The provision, similar to but stronger than one that was voted down in 2018, was added by the armed services committee. Spokeswomen for its chairman, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The measure would require sub-Cabinet-level Pentagon officials to review budget plans for nuclear arms, and any increases they thought necessary would have to be reported onward without any changes by the secretary of energy to the president’s budget writers. It would cover about 40% of the energy department’s total budget. Additional weapons spending most likely would be compensated by cuts in the remainder of the department’s budget.

In a letter to Inhofe that he sent Monday, Brouillette wrote, “This, in effect, leaves the Secretary with responsibility for the program, while removing his or her ability to effectively manage it.”

Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., also objected to the provision. In a joint letter to Inhofe and the armed services committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, they argued that the change might appear to be a bureaucratic adjustment, but that its effect would be significant.

“As written, these provisions would undermine and subordinate the Secretary of Energy’s statutory authority, including his or her responsibility to prepare a budget for congressional review, and would likely result in collateral damage for DOE’s nonweapons priorities,” they wrote.

The Pentagon would naturally emphasize nuclear arms, they predicted, at the expense of the cleanup of legacy defense waste sites, the cybersecurity of the electric grid and funding for energy innovation.

They also objected strongly to the way their own energy and natural resources committee was kept out of the loop.

The similar attempt in 2018, which also originated in the Senate, was voted down by the House of Representatives. Cantwell said that this time, it would be better to stop the move before it gets out of the Senate.

If the measure became law, she said, “What’s DOD going to do next year — go after State? USAID? Where does it stop? The more people get away with bad governance, the more they’ll keep trying.”

Durng the weekend, the sense in Congress was that members in both chambers wanted to get the bill passed quickly and were relieved that there had been little partisan fighting over its provisions. Cantwell said she fears that too many members will be reluctant to vote against a defense bill and won’t take the time to understand the provision’s ramifications.

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