Conferees agree to set up new weapons agency at DOE

House and Senate negotiators reached agreement last week on a plan to establish a separate, semi-independent nuclear weapons agency within the Department of Energy.

House and Senate conferees on the fiscal 2000 defense authorization bill adopted recommendations made earlier this year by former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., in his role as chair of a presidential task force assigned to study security leaks at DOE nuclear weapons labs.

Conferees approved the Rudman report's recommendation to establish a semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency within the Energy Department. The new agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), would be solely responsible for nuclear weapons research and production. The head of NNSA would report directly to the Secretary of Energy.

"This legislation will provide for clearer lines of authority and accountability to ensure that our nation's most vital nuclear secrets are properly managed and secured," said Rep. Floyd Spence, R-S.C., chairman of the House-Senate conference committee.

The debate over restructuring DOE has been the subject of heated discussions in recent months. Several members of Congress have argued that a nuclear weapons agency would serve only to compound old problems and create new ones. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has consistently opposed the creation of a semi-autonomous agency within his department. Richardson only warmed to the idea when even more severe proposals were floated on Capitol Hill, including the idea of taking away responsibility for nuclear weapons from DOE.

Under the adopted proposal, the NNSA would be led by an undersecretary of Energy with broad authority over all activities related to nuclear weapons, including security, policy, budgeting and counterintelligence.

An Energy Department spokesman told The Washington Post that Richardson has "a lot of problems" with the proposal, and is leaning toward recommending that President Clinton veto the $289 billion defense authorization bill in which it is included. One major problem, the spokesman said, is that under the proposal, Richardson would have no authority to hire or fire employees of the NNSA.

The agreement would set in motion the most dramatic changes to DOE since its creation in 1977. According to a House Armed Services Committee summary of the bill, it would keep environmental, safety and health oversight in the Secretary of Energy's jurisdiction and would set up a corps of managers to supervise the contractor community that deals with NNSA.

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