Nuclear security agency needs management improvements, panel says

National Nuclear Security Administration reorganization plans look good on paper but more needs to be done for the Energy Department agency to streamline operations and improve performance, according to a three-year study to be released soon.

Management plans recently announced by NNSA Administrator John Gordon, a retired Air Force general, could bolster morale and productivity of the three-year-old agency, but more must be done to meet today's needs, including the hiring of its own chief financial officer, according to John Foster, head of a congressionally mandated panel on the U.S. nuclear weapons.

"The panel's view is that Gen. Gordon has kind of a mess on his hands," Foster told the House Armed Service's special oversight panel to assess the reliability, safety and security of the U.S. nuclear stockpile last week.

"The opinion that you find expressed at the laboratories, and to some extent at the plants, is that the functional processes that are imposed on them is worse now than it was when NNSA was established," Foster said. "It's very disturbing … the panel has difficulty trying to understand why with all the money and the tasks that need to be done, we can't get on with it."

The agency is slated to receive about $8 billion as part of the $21.9 billion Energy is requesting for fiscal 2003, funds that must be put to good use to secure and improve "a weapons complex that has atrophied to a point not fully appreciated by many," Foster said.

"We have tied up the management of the company--of the laboratories and the plants, performing endless studies and reviews in order to see whether or not we can do this or do that. Things we used to do in the matter of a week now can take months," Foster told lawmakers.

"It is just incredibly process-oriented. And these processes do not add to safety or security. In fact, in some cases they actually hurt the situation," Foster added. "The weapons program has, in the view of the panel, reached a watershed. Confidence in the nuclear test pedigree is deteriorating."

The agency should hire a chief financial officer who can address all of the agency's bureaucratic requirements, reporting not only to Congress and the Defense Department but also Energy, he said. In addition, the agency must create a resource plan that explains just how it will address the challenges faced by the stockpile stewardship program, which oversees the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, Foster said.

If NNSA is unable to makes these changes, Congress should take further action to strengthen its mandate and provide the support it would need, Foster said, stopping short of saying NNSA should become a completely separate entity from Energy.

A chief NNSA financial officer, Foster said, will free Gordon from the "struggle" to report to the chief financial officer for the department--and from reporting to Congress, Defense and the National Weapons Council.

Gordon has created a reorganization plan that will take time to show results, according to a March 15 letter to Foster from Everett Beckner, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, obtained by Global Security Newswire.

"The report indicates dissatisfaction with the progress of the NNSA and its degree of autonomy, and recommends that if the rate of progress is inadequate that Congress should examine alternatives for managing the weapons program," Beckner wrote.

"Apparently, the panel feels that the Office of the Secretary of Energy has been deficient in support National Nuclear Security Administration, or otherwise hard to deal with," Beckner continued. "In fact the secretary has been very supportive of all issues brought before him by Gen. Gordon."

Last month Gordon told the special oversight panel that the agency plans to take several steps to streamline and improve operations, including consolidation of headquarters resources and reshuffling decision-making processes with the creation of a new management council.

Foster said the reorganization plan put forth by Gordon could improve the performance of the agency, but only if it is followed very closely.

Foster's panel recommends that "every option" be considered to meet the "unprecedented challenge" facing U.S. nuclear laboratories and production facilities, whose inefficiency wastes up to $1 billion a year, Foster said.

"If he is very forceful and one will not stand for deviations, then … the panel's view is that he can make it," Foster said.

Regardless, more reorganization must occur than what Gordon has planned thus far, Foster said.

In its final report, the Foster panel is expected to recommend that Energy and the NNSA:

  • Establish clear lines of authority, responsibility and accountability, definitions that are buttressed by the presence of chief financial officer.
  • Work with Defense to define the strategic direction, priorities and deliverables for the weapons program.
  • Rebuff detailed "how to" directives from government officials in functional areas such as environmental safety and health, security and program work.
  • Identify and reduce costs of staff activities.
According to Foster, the agency should also work with Defense to strengthen the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's programs for understanding weapons' effects, create systematic annual assessment of Defense's delivery platforms and integrated nuclear systems that parallel the processes for the weapons stockpile, and reassess the need for certain weapons requirements in view of the latest Nuclear Posture Review, especially those relating to hostile environments.
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