The Nuclear Option

By Carlo Muñoz / February 6, 2009 at 5:00 AM

As the newly minted Obama White House formulates policies on everything from economic stimulus proposals to defense spending, one initiative being pursued by the new administration has raised the hackles of a small but influential circle of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The issue that has lawmakers up in arms is a recent memorandum issued by the Office of Management and Budget requesting a cost-benefit assessment on transferring the National Nuclear Security Administration and the national laboratories from the Energy Department to the Pentagon.

First reported by media outlets in New Mexico, OMB's request calls upon DOE to “assess the costs and benefits” of shifting NNSA to DOD beginning in fiscal year 2011.

“The idea of moving NNSA into the DOD is not a new one, and has been rejected in the past for good reasons,” according to Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), chairwoman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

NNSA's assignment to DOE is necessary to “ensure some independence from the military,” and the move would send a message to the international community that the United States was “militarizing control” of the nuclear weapons portfolio, she said in a Feb. 5 letter to OMB Director Peter Orszag.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others in the Pentagon have taken significant steps to reinvigorate the importance of the nuclear mission after a number of high-profile gaffes in the handling and transport of nuclear weapons in recent years.

But those efforts, according to Tauscher, have done little to restore lawmakers' confidence in the Pentagon's ability to manage the entire nuclear portfolio. “With all the recent evidence of military neglect of the nuclear mission, it is an odd time to consider relying on that vast bureaucracy to manage the activities” of either NNSA or the labs, Tauscher's letter states.

While opposed to the effort, the California Democrat suggested that if the White House was intent on exploring this option, it should do so in a broad-based manner, “and not focused on one option for improved management.”

“Such an examination would also be best formulated in consultation with Congress, particularly the committees of jurisdiction,” she writes.