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Negative Nostalgia: Nuclear-Weapons Labs a Throwback to Cold War

April 19, 2012 ·

Stuck in the past, the Department of Energy is wasting money on nuclear-weapons labs.

Cross-posted from the Project on Government Oversight Blog.

We've been saying for some time that the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is a relic of the Cold War. Now it seems even the Department of Defense (DoD) has had enough, according to a Pentagon memo obtained by POGO, and is calling out the Department of Energy (DOE) for its refusal to downsize its nuclear weapons laboratories. POGO sent a letter to Members of Congress today—along with a copy of the leaked DoD memo—urging them to ensure that DOE does not circumvent the congressional funding process and pour even more money into its oversized lab system. We also urged DOE to follow DoD’s lead by closing redundant lab space and by placing a cap on contractor compensation at the labs.

The DoD memo appears to have been written in response to a new interagency council comprised of DOE, DoD, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The council is looking for ways “to engage in interagency long-term strategic planning” for the DOE labs. Simply put, the interagency council could create new missions for the nuclear weapons labs and could allow the agencies to funnel funding into DOE nuclear projects without congressional approval.

But, at a time when President Obama is calling for a “leaner” military and the Administration is considering shrinking the nuclear stockpile to reflect the realities of the 21st century, DOE nuclear labs should be getting smaller too.

As the DoD memo notes, experts have been urging DOE to downsize its labs (including the three nuclear weapons laboratories) since the end of the Cold War. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy concluded in 1995, “the DOE laboratory system is bigger and more expensive than it needs to be,” and there is “excessive duplication of capabilities among the labs.”

However, funding for the labs now exceeds Cold War levels, due in part to lobbying by the DOE lab directors. According to the DoD memo, the Administration’s plans to increase funding to $8.6 billion per year over the next ten years is almost 70 percent higher than spending during the Cold War in constant dollars. In another leaked memo obtained by POGO, an official from the Office of the Secretary of Defense noted that the DOE labs want to take on new missions as a way to justify their oversized infrastructure.

By contrast, the DoD has undertaken five Base Realignment and Closure rounds, or BRACs, since 1988, closing 21 laboratories and eliminating excess capacity. This past November, a DOE Office of Inspector General report concluded that DOE should carry out a BRAC-like review of its labs, which could lead to consolidation or realignment—which are ultimately money-savers for the labs and for taxpayers.

And, as we point out in the letter, taxpayers are footing a hefty bill for the labs. Seven of the top fifteen officials at the three nuclear weapons labs make more than the Administration’s $700,000 executive compensation cap. In theory, any amount above the compensation cap shouldn’t be a burden on taxpayers, as the labs are required to pay for the difference out of their own profits. However, because the labs use their government-granted award fees to pay the difference, taxpayers end up picking up the slack. For instance, in 2009, taxpayer dollars covered all of former Sandia Lab Director Tom Hunter’s $1.7-million salary.

What’s more, the DOE is clearly resistant to transparency, keeping under wraps the justification for the labs’ award fees. Since, 2009, the department has denied the public timely access to its revealing Performance Evaluation Plans (PEPs) and Performance Evaluation Reports (PERs), which POGO called “perhaps the single most important information available to hold NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] accountable” in a letter to President Obama. We’ve only been able to see recent PERs due to the efforts of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, which filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the NNSA for access to the documents.

Congress needs to step in. POGO echoes the call of other experts who believe the DOE must reevaluate its oversized, outdated lab system. Instead of giving the DOE lab complex a blank check to continue to grow, it's time to end the bloat.

Mia Steinle is an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight.