- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

From the 2004 loss of security keys at the Los Alamos nuclear research lab to a Catholic nun’s 2012 break-in at a similarly sensitive facility in Tennessee, the Energy Department’s handling of nuclear materials has been plagued by security lapses. And there is little evidence that any lasting improvements are being made.

For at least the third time in a decade, the investigative arm of Congress this week faulted managers inside the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration for failing to take meaningful action to address long-standing safety issues.

In fact, Government Accountability Office investigators concluded that some of the actions NNSA managers took to cut costs have worsened some security vulnerabilities.

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The woeful record and repeated warnings have exasperated the country’s leading voices on nuclear safety, such as Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and Clinton administration energy secretary who presided over the department when Congress created the NNSA 14 years ago.

“I think this should be abolished, but it probably won’t be because it challenges the turf of some members of Congress,” Mr. Richardson said an interview Wednesday with The Washington Times. “I fought very strongly against it.”

“I think this should be abolished, but it probably won’t be because ... more >

The Energy Department has been conducting nuclear research for decades, but Congress consolidated the nuclear security responsibilities under the NNSA in 2000. Since then, the agency has become a poster child for bureaucratic bungling and clumsy security.

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Congressional testimony reviewed by The Times included blunt assessments calling the NNSA security practices inadequate and wasteful.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Sandra Finan, who investigated the NNSA in 2012, said the agency had a “check-the-box” mentality.

The Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear watchdog, argues that the NNSA funnels money to contractors with shaky track records in fixing problems.

“The NNSA was created to give greater autonomy to the weapons complex and create less oversight,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the study group.

Energy Department officials were not available Wednesday to comment on the security concerns, a spokesman said.

The NNSA deferred comment and referred a reporter instead to the agency’s comments in the recent GAO report agreeing that more action needs to be taken.

NNSA agrees with GAO’s recommendation and has already initiated an effort to develop a security roadmap for NNSA which will clearly delineate the NNSA security vision and the path forward for the security program. The estimated completion date for this effort is December 31, 2014,” the agency wrote.

As far back as 2003, the GAO suggested that the NNSA develop a plan to create a clearer chain of command within a management that is viewed as too deferential to contractors and slow to empower its employers to report concerns. Outside watchdogs have made similar pleas.

“Our stance has always been that it would be possible to have a clearer policy debate if we had decent management,” Mr. Mello said.

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