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Bulletin #161: Brief report from DC
December 3, 2012
Dear friends –
November flew by quickly. Here at the Study Group we have had to be patient with our own massive distractions (planned and unplanned): five days of email and web site outage, abrupt computer demise, a flurry of pre-winter construction on our office and a Thanksgiving family trip. As of this writing we are still working through some web site issues.
We are especially grateful to those who volunteered this month.
Two of us (Peter and Greg) flew to Washington, DC mid-month for four days of meetings, about which more below. Despite the distractions we have been making small progress in the usual ways, e.g. meetings and correspondence with congressional and executive branch officials and analysts, with journalists, and with others. And as usual Trish worked as our “Mission Control” from New Mexico, scheduling tightly-packed meetings – sometimes at the assistant secretary level and often with other nuclear decisionmakers – and following up with document requests as needed.
Congress was in more than its usual turmoil, as members returned for the first time since the election with offices being relocated (sometimes twice), cafeterias abuzz as impromptu workplaces, and unresolved fiscal policy issues hanging over everything, creating budgetary uncertainty. Also personnel will almost certainly change soon, e.g. the Secretary of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator. The anticipation of such high-level changes strongly feeds political and bureaucratic paralysis.
One small step forward that we see is the continued solidarity of all national security agencies, and both appropriations committees, against near-term construction of the proposed pit production annex at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).
All agencies clearly understand there is no near-term need for the building. Thus the policy of a 5+ year delay (pdf) is holding – as indeed it must for fiscal, design readiness, and contract staffing reasons.
I say this because tonight, tomorrow, or soon after the Senate is likely to pass its version of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which will almost certainly contain (as does the House version) (pdf) a requirement to continue CMRR-NF design and construction. The bill does not, by its nature, provide funding.
When and if these provisions pass, they will do so in substantial part because of strong efforts of New Mexico Democrats (Heinrich, Udall, Bingaman, and to a lesser extent Lujan), who have consistently allied with the most hawkish members of Congress to achieve this end.
As we have previously stated (pdf; see also here, pdf), an alarming negative milestone was set this year when the Senate Armed Service Committee, which had previously been “fact-oriented” regarding warhead complex issues, issued an annual NDAA Report (pdf) that was riddled with factual errors regarding CMRR, pits, LANL, and plutonium. Senators and their staff who read this Report will naturally draw erroneous conclusions and vote accordingly, now and in the future.
We were therefore pleased that last Thursday (November 29), the Obama Administration warned Congress (pdf) that it may veto any NDAA that contains, among 17 other provisions the Administration finds objectionable, any requirement for near-term CMRR-NF construction. (The Los Alamos Monitor informed their readers of this warning in Saturday’s timely article, complete with a picture of President Obama sternly wagging his finger.)
The Administration said:
Through March 2013 the government is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that is silent on nearly all budget details, including CMRR-NF. It allows but does not compel the project. The Administration has requested (pdf) congressional permission to suck the remaining $120 million in unspent CMRR-NF funds away, but the armed services committees, with their benighted and obsolete posture of support for CMRR-NF, do not agree. (Neither do we, but for a different reason: the request would fund highly-dubious new plutonium investments in the conspicuous absence of any overall plan or environmental impact analysis.)
The appropriations committees have no intention of funding CMRR-NF in the current or coming fiscal year. The only source of new cash with which they might do so, the Pentagon, understands and has repeated stated that CMRR-NF is unnecessary for now. And of course they have their own needs (and massive boondoggles and powerful contractors).
When Peter and I were in DC we attended a talk by former NNSA chief Linton Brooks, who expounded on the remaining pockets of support for “CMRR-NF now:”
Perhaps the simplest explanation of the seemingly futile pursuit of CMRR-NF by so many people who ought to know better is that it helps tilt the political playing field toward additional funding for the LANL contractor and the nuclear warhead enterprise generally, and it propagandizes all parties toward this same end.
For NM Democrats, the dogged pursuit of a dead nuclear weapons project provides electoral protection from attack by Republicans. It is, however, a new low in futility as far as our state’s economic and social development is concerned, and a new political and intellectual debasement. Senator Domenici, by contrast, had a stronger reality principle. He promoted live wasteful and destructive nuclear projects, often successfully.
What official Washington cannot quite wrap its mind around yet (in part because it need not do so now) is there is no rational reason to ever revive CMRR-NF – barring, that is, intentional disinvestment in Building PF-4 or its intentional overloading with unnecessary new and expanded missions. Of course, that’s the greedy LANL contractor’s plan, which we can be sure the NM delegation will naturally support without knowing what they are doing. NNSA – a fatally weak agency – will have to learn the hard way again that boundaries should have been drawn. Sort of like Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football.
One response to our effective opposition of CMRR-NF has been much greater secrecy about plutonium plans. More pit production equipment is being installed at LANL; new infrastructure plans are advancing, well out of the public eye. These developments, and the sorry state of the Administration’s nuclear warhead administration which is producing them, are topics for another time.
I will return to Washington next week to continue and expand these discussions. We will bring what we think are much better ideas for NNSA reform than those we see from the nuclear right (e.g. Rep. Mike Turner and Sen. Jon Kyl, lately paired on this topic with Sen. Tom Udall).
At NNSA and the Department of Energy (DOE), the tendency to “kick the can down the road” until the election has been replaced by a general uncertainty of what to do, who will be in charge, and what policies will be followed. The last sliver of NNSA which is not a management and operating (M&O) contractor (just 3%, by dollars spent) is not making many decisions. To say there is a leadership vacuum is an understatement. There is very little space left in which a vacuum could form. When it does, the big nuclear labs and plants (i.e. the contractors) automatically fill it. And when NNSA needs “independent” advice, it generally turns to more contractors to help out. The U.S. nuclear warhead business – and it is a very big business, with sweet multi-decade contracts for the vaguest sort of work that run more than $30 billion in total value in the case of LANL (just to pick one) – has very little federal character left.
The contractors’ agendas, and the agendas of parochial politicians like those from NM, have driven DOE and a progressively weakening NNSA so hard that the latter now has very few friends on the Hill.
We hold that NNSA should be reabsorbed by DOE, but that is part of a larger plan which we can’t describe here.
As two senior nuclear-related figures in government said to us, “Everything NNSA touches, it breaks.” Another said, “Why is it that we cannot trust a single thing NNSA says?”
In addition to the drumbeat of project failures and cost overruns – with many more in the queue – there is a rumored billion-dollar violation of the Antideficiency Act (ADA), namely, putting taxpayers on the hook for gold-plated contractor retirement plans without any enabling law. Nobody wants to talk about this, but the billions of dollars in pension plan red ink is no great secret. NNSA’s contractors estimate the unfunded costs at roughly $1 billion per year mid-decade, with NNSA’s own scenarios rising to as much as $3 billion per year.
We hear of one senior NNSA official who disloyally and secretly briefed congressional committees. No surprise there.
Despite the agency’s individual and corporate failures, nobody has been fired so far. The Administration is shockingly bereft of active nuclear policy-makers, managers, ideas, and courage. In the resulting vacuum, most of the ideas du jour come from the far right.
Some of the NNSA’s managerial load is being picked up by Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Pentagon, which is not a stable situation. Corporate lobbyists from the nuclear labs fill a lot of the gaps.
We were shocked this month by the complacency we saw. The proposals of the nuclear hawks basically amount to unshackling the contractors even more – giving them even more money to begin even more projects with even less accountability. Despite the appearance of occasional inter-party conflict, the federal government – really all parts of it, at the moment – have basically circled the wagons to protect the contractors who run the warhead complex. The areas of disagreement are slight.
The nuclear labs are far and away preeminent in this racket. Nobody challenges them. I think most members of Congress do not really understand the degree of privatization involved, or that the nuclear weapons laboratories are actually corporate actors, not federal.
This is a sweepingly negative characterization. There are welcome if belated exceptions to NNSA’s slack management and certain parties in and around Congress are highly responsible and active. Were this not the case, the warhead complex would have blown up by now – literally and otherwise. But the big picture is what Congress and the Administration are not seeing, and so I have emphasized it here.
Stay tuned, and thank you for your support,
Greg Mello, for the Study Group