Originally created 06/28/99

Energy's status faces attack

Some members of Congress are ready to cut the power to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In the wake of revelations that China has been stealing secrets from the department's nuclear-weapons labs, several congressmen have proposed radical reorganizations -- and even outright abolition -- of the Cabinet agency that owns and oversees Savannah River Site.

"We simply say that the Department of Energy does not continue to deserve Cabinet-level status," said Dave Hanna, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan. For several years, the Kansas Republican has introduced bills that would abolish the Energy Department.

U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., often introduces similar bills in the Senate. But this year, their proposals are just two of several coursing through the Capitol.

The House's version of the 2000 Defense Authorization Bill -- which authorizes federal agencies to spend money for specified defense programs -- calls for a commission to study whether the Energy Department's nuclear-weapons program should be transferred to the Defense Department.

The Energy Department oversees operations, including pollution cleanup, at SRS and other nuclear-weapons sites. It also sells electricity generated at federal dams across the country.

The department was founded in 1977, as a fusion of three lesser federal agencies. Its control of the nuclear-weapons industry stems, in part, from former lawmakers' desires to keep those facilities from the control of the Defense Department.

In keeping with such concerns, other current congressional proposals would place the weapons complex under a new agency that would be part of Energy, but operate independently.

Local lawmakers said they are evaluating the proposals.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., probably will support the House's proposed study of whether the Energy Department should be restructured, said his spokesman, John DeCrosta.

U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, whose district includes SRS, has not yet decided which plan he will support, a spokesman said.

"He hasn't committed to any one plan yet," said Kevin Bishop, press secretary for Mr. Graham, R-S.C. "He's going to be looking. There's going to be different ideas being thrown out, and he's going to be looking at all of them to see how best we can ensure that the secrets of our nuclear labs are protected."

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson spoke against plans to abolish or weaken his department during a visit to Savannah River Site on Thursday.

"I do reject the argument that the Department of Energy is beyond hope," he said during a brief press conference dominated by questions about the department's security. "We have to have clear lines of authority and accountability, and we have changed that."

Mr. Richardson acknowledged that Energy Department officials need to "radically reorganize the way we do security."

He said he would work with Congress on plans to create a new undersecretary for security, and also a new security division within the department.

But he said he would not agree to congressional plans to run the nuclear-weapons program independently of the rest of the Energy Department.

"I will not agree to an autonomous agency that I cannot control," Mr. Richardson said. "I am the Secretary of Energy. It should be under my control. I will not surrender authority of the nuclear weapons complex, because I am the secretary, and I have to be held accountable."

Some nuclear-watchdog groups also cautioned against restructuring the Energy Department. In particular, many activists warned against plans to place Energy missions under the jurisdiction of the Defense Department.

"It would be nice if they were talking about reforming the Department of Defense as well," said Don Moniak, program director for Serious Texans Against Nuclear Dumping in Amarillo, Texas. "I think it's a reactionary approach. Having the Pentagon take over isn't going to mean the problem is going to be solved, because they have many of the same problems.

"What we do know is that the Pentagon is the biggest bureaucracy in this country. It's huge. The Department of Defense is just the Department of Energy times 20."

A better idea would place environmental cleanup at some Energy Department facilities under the control of citizens who live near the plants, said Tom Carpenter, West Coast director for the Government Accountability Project.

The project often represents federal whistle-blowers.

"We would favor getting the Energy Department out of Hanford Site and out of Rocky Flats and other sites where there is no mission other than cleanup, and appointing a local control board to oversee the cleanup in the interests of that region," Mr. Carpenter said.

Lesser federal agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, could take over other aspects of the Energy Department's work, he said.

"I just think the Energy Department is redundant at this point, and has no meaningful role to play anymore," Mr. Carpenter said.

But abolition of the department could hurt U.S. efforts to work with Russia to reduce the nuclear-weapons threat, a University of Georgia political scientist said.

"Any major changes with the Energy Department could undercut the credibility and visibility that it has in controlling the spread of nuclear weapons," said Gary Bertsch, director of the university's Center for International Trade and Security.

Dr. Bertsch often works with the Energy Department on nuclear-weapons issues.

Shuffling the Energy Department's bureaucracy under the already large Defense Department also could prove costly to taxpayers, Dr. Bertsch said.

"I think it would mean a major reorganization of America's nuclear-weapons complex, and I frankly think it would be a mistake," he said.

"The expertise is clearly needed. We wouldn't really do away with it. We would just put it under a different administrative structure, which I think would be disruptive and costly to the American taxpayer."

The department might already have dodged one bullet. The House bill to abolish the Energy Department probably won't reach a vote, Mr. Hanna said.

"I would be surprised if it reached the floor," he said. "The legislative schedule is very busy. It's going to be all we can do to get an appropriations bill through, a tax-cut bill through, and those kinds of things."

Brandon Haddock covers energy issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.


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