U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette in a Monday letter urged senators to reconsider provisions included in a version of annual defense legislation that would give the Pentagon and other defense officials significant sway over the National Nuclear Security Administration and its nuclear weapons purse.
Brouillette, writing to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., said he had “deep concerns about several” things embedded in the panel’s fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, including a section that would grant the Nuclear Weapons Council vetting power and influence over NNSA budgeting and priorities.
That, among other things, the energy secretary continued in his two-page letter, would be detrimental.
“Since the establishment of DOE in 1977, the Secretary of Energy has been charged with the management of America’s nuclear weapon capabilities,” Brouillette wrote. “This authority is the most important responsibility that I hold as the Secretary of Energy.”
The National Nuclear Security Administration, which operates at and has proposed a nuclear weapons mission (plutonium pit production) for the Savannah River Site, is a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department. Its focus is on the nation’s nuclear arsenal, nonproliferation and naval propulsion.
The energy secretary — currently Brouillette, who succeeded Rick Perry — oversees the budget process for the Energy Department and its NNSA. The balance between resources, “military necessity” and “civilian control,” Brouillette suggested, is paramount.
Tom Clements, the director of Savannah River Site Watch, an independent monitoring group, in a Wednesday email blast described the Senate committee’s directions as “disturbing.” The changes, if effectuated, Clements emphasized, could undermine nuclear cleanup funding — crucial to the Savannah River Site, home to millions of gallons of radioactive waste and other environmental threats.
“This front-door attempt to neutralize the NNSA and reduce the Environmental Management budget must be rejected by the full Senate,” Clements said.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell had similar things to say earlier this week. Cantwell, a Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, represents Washington state, home to the Hanford Site.
“This is a total jam by the DOD, neutering the Department of Energy on almost half of its budget, to basically say, ‘We know better what to do,'” she said in a speech. “I hope my colleagues will speak loudly and clearly about this. This is a bipartisan issue.”
The National Nuclear Security Administration itself, according to spokesperson Ana Gamonal de Navarro, “strongly objects” to the same portions of the Senate committee’s National Defense Authorization Act, in general seen as a must-pass bill.
“We urge Congress to allow DOE and NNSA to continue to work together to deliver a budget that will support our mission and commitment to the American people,” Navarro said in a statement.