Why the United States Should Maintain Civilian Control of Its Nuclear Complex

By: Lauren Prudente, Columnist

Photo Credit: PBS

During his own presidential campaign in 2011, former Texas Governor Rick Perry infamously forgot the name of the Department of Energy (DOE) when listing the three agencies he would eliminate. Now, Governor Perry is poised to become the next Secretary of Energy, pending Senate confirmation, and has admitted the importance of the agency and its role in national security. Many people may be surprised to learn that the DOE oversees the maintenance and security of the US nuclear arsenal, but there is a long history of civilian oversight to ensure the development of nuclear weapons during times of peace. Civilian oversight of nuclear weapons and its facilities has been instrumental in setting the country’s nuclear agenda and it is paramount that this continues.

What is the National Nuclear Security Administration?

The role of the DOE goes beyond the regulation of oil and gas and the promotion of renewable energy. The primary function of the DOE is to maintain the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous agency responsible for supporting and securing the nation’s nuclear weapons, makes up about a third of the Department’s $30 billion budget.[i] The NNSA is responsible for four major objectives: nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation; emergency response; powering the nuclear Navy; and oversight and change.[ii]

It is no accident that the NNSA falls under the DOE and not the Department of Defense (DoD). After World War II, President Harry Truman enacted the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to ensure the control of peacetime development of nuclear technology. This legislation created the Atomic Energy Commission, the precursor to the NNSA, and effectively moved the control of nuclear weapons and the national laboratories from the military to civilians.

Separating the development of nuclear weapons from their application is a deliberate choice to place civilians in control of development and scientific innovation, while leaving their delivery to the military. Separating the control of the nuclear arsenal set a precedent not only internally but also internationally during a tumultuous time of the Cold War. It demonstrated the commitment of the United States to responsibly develop nuclear weapons by placing civilians directly in charge. Over the years, the role of civilians in the US nuclear complex has only expanded to include ensuring current nonproliferation efforts on the international stage, maintaining facilities, and spearheading emergency response efforts.

Potential Realignment of the NNSA

It may now be a nonissue that Governor Rick Perry was originally unaware of the massive national security role the DOE plays because of proposals by some aligned with the new Administration to gut the Department of Energy and align the NNSA with DoD.[iii] Proponents of this move cite budgetary and transparency reasons arguing that it is difficult to adequately assess and appropriately fund nuclear maintenance activities and operations between the NNSA, Navy, and Air Force.

This is not the first time that dissolving the DOE and moving US nuclear weapons under DoD purview has been proposed. In the 1990s, the Abolishment of the Department of Energy Act was introduced in the House and Senate on three separate occasions, but each time did not make it out of committee. A similar bill, the Department of Energy Elimination and National Security Protection Act was introduced in the House in 2001, and it also didn’t move out of committee. In 2009, the Obama Administration asked the Office of Management and Budget to investigate moving the NNSA under DoD to refocus the DOE, but this move ultimately didn’t happen due to pressure from Democratic congressional members.

Maintaining Civilian Nuclear Control

While the new proposal would keep the NNSA as a semi-autonomous agency, policymakers should be careful of the precedent they set. The new administration has charted a course that may lead to more geopolitical change than has been seen since the end of the Cold War. This potential for change means that maintenance of the nuclear arsenal should continue to fall under multiple layers of civilian control, so that any discussion of future modernization or development can occur in a candid and transparent manner.

This is the crux of civilian-military affairs. It is possible that keeping the NNSA as a semi-autonomous body would allow civilian control to continue to thrive, but it could also send a message internationally that the United States as a nation may not want to send. In his book, Arms and Influence, the late Thomas Schelling pointed to the development of the nuclear taboo in the wake of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He continued to say:

How to preserve this inhibition, what kinds of policies or activities may threaten it, how the inhibition may be broken or dissolved, and what institutional arrangements may support or weaken it deserve attention.[iv]

The preservation of civilian control of the US nuclear arsenal deserves the attention of policymakers and administration officials so that nonproliferation continues to be the precedent the United States sets in the international arena.

[i] In FY16, the total budget of the Department of Energy’s appropriated budget was $29.6 billion. The budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration was $12.5 billion. National Nuclear Agency. “FY17 Budget in Brief.” Accessed January 29, 2017. https://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2016/02/f29/FY2017BudgetinBrief_0.pdf.

[ii] National Nuclear Agency. “About Us.” Accessed January 29, 2017. https://nnsa.energy.gov/aboutus.

[iii] John Siciliano, “New president should gut Energy Dep., Heritage says,” The Washington Examiner, September 25, 2016, Accessed January 29, 2017, http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/new-president-should-gut-energy-dept.-heritage-says/article/2602758.

[iv] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University, 2008), 288.

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