Testimony before the Joint Hearing of the
Committee on Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power
Committee on Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment
on Restructuring the Department of Energy (DOE)
July 13, 1999
Thank you for this opportunity to testify on current proposals to restructure the DOE. I am a Professor of Physics at Princeton University and Chair of the University Research Board. I am also the Chairman of the Board and one of the founders of a high-tech startup company, Magnetic Imaging Technologies, Inc., which makes images of human lungs with laser-polarized gases. So I have experience with the business world outside of academia. I have had a long familiarity with the activities of DOE, as a practicing scientist, as a member of advisory committees for DOE Weapons Laboratories and Science Laboratories, and as the Director of the Office of Energy Research under Secretary of Energy James Watkins during the Bush administration.
The DOE has many missions, but none more important than nuclear stewardship, that is, ensuring the safety, security and reliability of the US nuclear stockpile. Connected with this mission are — or at least used to be — many others, the construction and operation of
nuclear reactors for the production of special nuclear materials, the enrichment of stable isotopes, the construction of scientific facilities to learn more about the fundamental scientific issues connected with nuclear weapons, and how to ensure the safety of those working with dangerous materials — radioactive, toxic or both. I could go on, but my point is that the DOE weapons program is so challenging that it needs the most capable technical, scientific and managerial talents available. As long as the United States maintains its own nuclear weapons and feels it necessary to cope with those of others, we must ensure that the part of DOE responsible for nuclear weapons functions as well as possible.
Regretfully, I must agree with various assessments, stretching back many years, that DOE's missions — including the nuclear weapons mission — are often poorly managed. The recent Rudman and IDA reports, the Galvin report of a few years ago, and many others have clearly spelled out what is wrong. The DOE has become a bureaucratic morass, with many paper-pushing, regulatory offices competing to build up their staffs of FTE's and SES billets, to take credit for successes of increasingly-harried, front-line scientists, engineers and technicians, and to avoid responsibility for anything that may go wrong. The recent revelations of Chinese espionage and the DOE reaction to it are but one example of how difficult it is for the DOE to cope with serious real and potential problems in the weapons program, and other DOE programs as well. So I support a reorganization of DOE along the lines suggested in the Rudman report. If a reorganized DOE with a more efficiently operating Nuclear Stewardship Agency (NSA) is a result of the Chinese espionage, at least we will have some benefit from the regrettable affair.
I have no illusions that a semiautonomous Nuclear Stewardship Agency within DOE will correct all of the problems we are struggling with, but I am sure that the current DOE structure will not work. I say this as a pragmatist and an experimental scientist. We have tried to make the current structure work for many years and it always fails. When one of my experiments does that again and again, I try something else.
We have several reasons to be hopeful that a semiautonomous agency could work. The example of NSA within the Department of Defense (DoD) has often been cited as a successful, semiautonomous agency, and there are other precedents like DARPA in DoD or the Naval Reactor Program within DOE. I like the word "Agency," which comes from the Latin root "to do." An agent does something for you. Some in the current structure of DOE and its supervisors seem not to care if anything ever gets done. This is not acceptable for any worthwhile mission, but it is simply not tolerable for Nuclear Stewardship.
Nuclear weapons, ours and those of our potential adversaries are real and very dangerous. They are too important not to take very seriously.
There is a wise old saying, sometimes ascribed to the Chinese, that "The best fertilizer for a farm is the feet of the owner." Someone has to own the mission of nuclear stewardship, or at the very least someone must be a dedicated Steward. To succeed, the Steward must have the means to manage. As best I understand the proposed the Agency for Nuclear Stewardship, it will give the Steward both ownership and the means to do the job.
You cannot be a good Steward of the Nuclear Weapons mission of DOE unless you control all of the key functions, manufacturing, security, research, safety, etc. There is never enough money or enough personnel to do everything that is needed, so the Steward will have to balance many competing needs: the security of plutonium facilities; human resources; environmental, safety and health requirements; research needed to ensure that aging nuclear weapons remain safe and effective; counterintelligence precautions — the list is extremely long and every issue is important. However, someone must make the decision on how to distribute finite resources to do the best possible job. With the current DOE structure, various offices can demand that this action or that be taken with no concern for the broader problem of how to optimize finite resources of funds and people. One unfunded mandate after another comes down from headquarters or the field office. It is not possible to fully respond to all of the mandates. So the poor front-line troops do the best they can, and a year later another GAO report comes out saying that this or that requirement was not met. There is substantial duplication, triplication or even quadruplication of roles in DOE, with the front-line DOE contractor, the DOE site office, the DOE field office and headquarters all contributing to some issues.
I have testified before that part of DOE's problem is that it has too many people at headquarters and in the field offices. I would hope that the ANS Steward would not be saddled with making work for every DOE employee currently on a payroll related to the ANS mission. But I am a realist, and if every employee remains, the system could probably still be made to work better with the sort of crisp management structure envisaged for the ANS. Almost all of the DOE civil servants I met during my time there were good and talented people, determined to do something to earn their keep. It is a shame that so many of them are used for counterproductive activities.
Some would say letting the ANS Steward control most of the important oversight now assigned to various independent DOE offices would be letting the fox watch the hen house. I do not think this needs be the case, and in any event the current structure is not working. The proposed ANS Steward will have a clear list of responsibilities, and will have to report annually to the Secretary of Energy — and through the Secretary to the Congress and to the President — on how well these responsibilities have been fulfilled, and why the allocation of funds and people for safety, security, research programs, etc. is optimum. One could also enlist the aid of other federal agencies for periodic tests of how well the ANS is fulfilling its mandate. For example, another competent federal agency could be tasked to try to penetrate the computer security of the ANS.
Concerns have been raised about possible bad effects of ANS on DOE science. Indeed, one of the strengths of the DOE weapons laboratories has been the strong basic science done there and the close ties their scientists maintain to other DOE laboratories and to the rest of the scientific world. This has paid important dividends to our country and we do not want to lose these benefits in a restructuring of DOE. One of the benchmarks on which the Nuclear Steward will be judged should be the health of science in the Weapons Laboratories.
To help maintain ties of the laboratories to the entire scientific world, visits by foreign scientists to the weapons laboratories should continue, but we should redouble our efforts to be sure such visits do not result in the loss of classified information. Those of you who have visited weapons laboratories realize that non-classified scientific work is often done "outside the fence" where security issues are less urgent. The Steward should ensure that there is a graded system of visitor controls. It would be silly to follow the same procedures for a scientist coming to talk to colleagues about human genome sequencing as for one who may be interested in weapons-related topics. Visitor controls should be very stringent in the latter case, but relatively light in the former.
I do not think that the ANS need hinder the support by other parts of DOE, or by outside agencies, of science at the Weapons Laboratories. As a former Director of Office of Energy Research, I saw, at very close quarters, how work was funded by my office at the Weapons Laboratories, and how other federal agencies — for example, the National Institutes of Health, or DARPA — arranged to have work done. The creation of an ANS within DOE might actually help the interactions between the Science Laboratories and the Weapons Laboratories if it leads to better management within the ANS.