WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday accused officials from the Department of Energy of performing as “rogue actors” who aim to “undermine” the agency in charge of managing nuclear warheads, which in turn could damage the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization plans.

In his opening comments, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., cast Thursday’s committee hearing on nuclear weapons as an existential one for the National Nuclear Security Administration. “Arguably, this could go down as one of the most significant hearings we’ve ever had,” he said.

“I’ve been given information that individuals from the Department of Energy have worked behind the scenes with the House Democrats on ill-advised legislation,” including adding bureaucracy to the Nuclear Weapons Council, prohibiting cooperation between NNSA and the council, and subsuming NNSA into the DOE, Inhofe added.

“It’s not surprising that opponents of nuclear weapons support these efforts — it’s what you’d expect them to do,” Inhofe continued. “What bothers me is that people who should be doing all they can to support the critical work of the NNSA are instead trying to undermine it. As chairman of this committee, I won’t stand idly by and allow this to happen. This work is too important.”

Since its creation in 2002, the NNSA has lived in an uneasy location — technically part of the Department of Energy but quasi-independent, beholden in some ways to both the DOE and the Department of Defense, with oversight coming from both the defense and energy committees in Congress.

Part of the tension comes from the Nuclear Weapons Council, a Pentagon led office that provides guidance on the development and production of nuclear warheads. Chaired by Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord, who appeared at Thursday’s hearing, the NWC — made up of five other top Pentagon officials and the NNSA administrator — has become the center of the fight between supporters of the DOE and the DoD.

The hearing occurred following a number of efforts coming out of the House that Inhofe and other Senate Republicans worry will have damaging long-term impacts on America’s nuclear modernization efforts.

Inhofe introduced into the record a letter from Defense Secretary Mark Esper laying out key concerns that the Pentagon chief claims would put nuclear modernization at “unacceptable” risk. Those include:

  • Provisions in the House-passed “minibus” that covers both defense and energy appropriations, which would cut NNSA’s weapons accounts by $2 billion. According to Lord, such cuts could cause delays in the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb and other modernization activities. Specific cuts to the W93 nuclear warhead elsewhere from the House would also imperil America’s ability to work with the United Kingdom on its nuclear arsenal, she said.
  • In that same minibus, there are a number of provisions that curtail NNSA’s ability to work with the Nuclear Weapons Council, or NWC. “Collectively, these sections would end the statutorily mandated NWC as an effective and useful governing body and gravely endanger the ability of DoD and DOE/NNSA to coordinate on our shared responsibilities for nuclear deterrence,” Esper wrote.
  • The House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act also includes language in Section 1644 that would make the secretaries of energy and defense the co-chairs on the Nuclear Weapons Council. Such a move, would make the council “far less efficient and, I’m afraid, it might destroy the relationship right now that we have between DoD as well as NNSA,” warned Lord, currently the chair of the council.
  • Language that prevents the use of money for any potential live nuclear test. The Trump administration reportedly plans to resume nuclear weapons testing.

Not included in Esper’s letter, but also very much on Inhofe’s radar: the bipartisan Department of Energy Organization and Management Improvement Act, passed by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Sept. 9, changes language that made the NNSA a quasi-independent entity, and instead folds the agency more fully under DOE’s control.

The NNSA’s awkward standing between the energy and defense committees sets up something of a jurisdictional battle in Congress, and it is unclear if the defense-focused legislators actually have a say in whether the NNSA would be disbanded or if that decision would formally fall under the purview of the energy committees.

That tension escalated earlier this year when a fight between pro-defense lawmakers and Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette over the NNSA’s budget went public. The agency eventually won a plus-up in the administration’s budget request, thanks in part to Inhofe, who told Defense News that his message to Brouillette was “I won, you lost.”

Then in June, Inhofe introduced language, defeated by the larger Senate, that would have given the Nuclear Weapons Council an earlier say in the NNSA’s budget development. Since then, the NWC has become something of a flashpoint between the two sides.

For most of the hearing, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the head of the NNSA, tread carefully in her remarks (she reports up to both the DOE and the DoD).

But while Brouillette said he is in favor of taking a co-chair role on the council, Gordon-Hagerty noted that “the system that we have in place right now, and unless otherwise directed by Congress to change, is working well.”

“It’s important that we can be [decisive], and with two Cabinet officials — they certainly are busy with the work of their respective departments,” she noted.

Gordon-Hagerty later stated that, should the agency take the proposed $2 billion budget cut, “we would not be able to meet the requirements of the Department of Defense.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Energy did not respond to question by deadline.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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