EXPLORING PRESENT AND FUTURE ROLES OF DOE/NNSA LABS IN PROTECTING HOMELAND SECURITY
William Happer, Ph.D.
Eugene Higgens Professor of Physics
Chair of the University Research Board
Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism:
Panel on Nuclear and Radiological Issues
The National Academies
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
July 10, 2002
Chairman Bingaman and members, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to testify on the role of the Department of Energy (DOE)/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Laboratories in protecting the homeland security of the United States. My name is William Happer, and I am the Eugene Higgens Professor of Physics and chair of the University Research Board at Princeton University. I also served as chair of The National Academies' panel that examined the role of science and technology for countering nuclear and radiological terrorism. I am here today to discuss some of the conclusions of that panel's report, an unclassified extract of which appears as chapter 2 in The National Academies Report entitled Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism, which was released on June 13, 2002. I also want to share some personal views based on my experience as director of DOE's Office of Energy Research (now the Office of Science) from 1991-1993.
In this testimony I offer three observations and two recommendations for the committee's consideration. Except where noted, these represent my personal views, and not necessarily the views of The National Academies.
Observation 1: The DOE/NNSA laboratories have an important and unique role to play in protecting homeland security, especially from acts of nuclear and radiological terrorism. During the course of its deliberations, The National Academies panel I chaired received over a dozen briefings on national laboratory research and development (R&D) projects related to nuclear and radiological counterterrorism. This work is extensive in scope and appears to be of high quality. The examples given below illustrate the diverse portfolio of work on nuclear and radiological counterterrorism underway principally at three national laboratories—Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories:
• Deployment of materials protection, control, and accounting technologies to protect nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials in Russia.
• Research to understand current and likely future patterns of terrorist-state cooperation to obtain or develop technologies and special nuclear material (highly enriched uranium and plutonium) for improvised nuclear devices.
• Research, development, and deployment of sensor systems to detect illicit nuclear materials in commerce.
• Modeling studies to understand the consequences of attacks on nuclear power plants using civilian airliners.
• Modeling studies to understand the dispersion of radioactivity from terrorist use of radiological weapons, also known as "dirty bombs."
No other organization in the world has more hands-on experience or understanding of nuclear weapons production, maintenance, security, and safeguards. This knowledge can readily be brought to bear on the homeland defense mission. Other federal agencies appear to recognize these unique capabilities of the national laboratories as well: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for example, has contracted with Sandia National Laboratories for some of its nuclear safety and security R&D work.
Observation 2: The DOE/NNSA laboratories have capabilities and expertise that go well beyond nuclear weapons and radioactive materials. The labs have unique expertise in building sensors and sensor systems. For example, the development of space-deployed "bang-meters" by the national laboratories has given the United States great confidence that clandestine tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere are likely to be detected. Both the weapons laboratories and the non-weapons DOE laboratories have a great deal of experience in remote sensing of the atmosphere and oceans, as well as seismic signals that could reveal underground tests of nuclear weapons. They also have strong capabilities for sensing biological, chemical, and explosive agents.
Observation 3: There is a tradition of internal quality control at DOE laboratories that keeps flawed science and technology to a minimum. The DOE/NNSA laboratories have a strong tradition of intellectual independence and freedom to pursue research ideas wherever they lead. The labs also expose the work of their researchers to rigorous review by peers to improve its quality, both at the front end (project conception) and the back end (publication of results) of the R&D cycle. The federal government's practice of providing funding to multiple laboratories has proven to be a good way to increase the competition among research ideas, develop a deep pool of research talent, and thereby promote high-quality work.
The private sector also has much science and technology to contribute to the goal of countering terrorism. But some private-sector proposals violate well-established scientific principles, since there is not the depth of internal quality control that is standard operating procedure at the national laboratories. Additionally, the review of private-sector proposals can be complicated by the need to protect proprietary ideas.
Mr. Chairman, it is my strong personal opinion that the DOE/NNSA labs should play a pre-eminent role in homeland defense R&D, regardless of the organizational form of the new agency that is ultimately created by the Congress. As your committee considers changes to the national laboratory system to improve its capabilities to support the homeland defense effort, I offer the following two recommendations for its consideration:
Recommendation 1: The DOE/NNSA laboratories should be given the lead role for homeland defense R&D. Quite clearly, science and technology are key weapons in the nation's counterterrorism arsenal, but new organizational approaches will be needed to deploy these weapons effectively in the nation's service. In fact, the National Academies' panel on countering nuclear and radiological terrorism that I chaired noted that, to be effective, the nation's efforts to counter nuclear and radiological terrorism must bring to bear the best scientific and technological resources available to the federal government and must be well coordinated with other federal R&D and counterterrorism activities.
The panel also noted that important progress is already being made by the R&D and policy communities to reduce the nation's vulnerability to nuclear and radiological terrorism. There is not much evidence, however, that the R&D activities are being coordinated, that thought is being given to prioritizing the activities against other national counterterrorism needs, or that effective mechanisms are in place to transfer the results of these activities into application.
The panel concluded that the effectiveness of the nation's counterterrorism efforts could be improved if one agency were given the lead responsibility for coordinating and prioritizing, in consultation with other interested agencies, nuclear and radiological counterterrorism R&D.
Accordingly, the panel recommended that
A single federal agency, possibly the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, should be designated as the nation's lead research and development agency for nuclear and radiological counterterrorism. This agency should develop a focused and adequately funded research and development program to fulfill this mission and should work with other federal agencies, the President's science advisor, and the director of the Office of Homeland Security to coordinate this work and ensure that effective mechanisms are in place for the timely transfer of results to the homeland defense effort.
The panel's recommendation that an agency like NNSA should take the lead role for counterterrorism R&D was based primarily on the recognition that DOE/NNSA national laboratories have scientific and technological talents and capabilities that are unmatched elsewhere in the federal government. Simply put, no other agency has the breadth or depth of scientific and technological capabilities required to execute this role.
Recommendation 2: New funding and management arrangements should be established to help ensure the ultimate success of the counterterrorism R&D effort. As noted elsewhere in my testimony, the federal government's practice of providing funding to multiple laboratories has worked well to foster competition and improve quality, positive attributes that I hope will be carried over to the counterterrorism R&D effort. This practice has, however, produced a "not invented here" attitude among some lab personnel that has hampered the effective transfer of R&D ideas and results across and outside of the national laboratory system.
The National Academies' panel on countering nuclear and radiological terrorism recognized that the centralization of R&D responsibilities was not, in itself, sufficient to ensure the success of the counterterrorism effort:
The centralization of lead R&D responsibilities into a single federal agency is no guarantee of success absent commitments to certain operating principles. Among these are commitments to appoint technically capable staff to manage the R&D work; to provide sufficient and sustained funding to carry out an adequate program; and to reach across agency boundaries and outside government to obtain the expertise needed to execute the work and to ensure that results are moved expeditiously into application. While the events of September 11 appear to have produced a renewed sense of cooperation among federal agencies, the challenge for whichever agency is selected to lead this important R&D effort will be to nurture and sustain this spirit.
Mr. Chairman, as the Congress considers the future roles of the DOE/NNSA laboratories in the counterterrorism effort, it will be vitally important to organize the R&D effort in a way that serves to break down walls between the national laboratories to encourage coordination of cross-laboratory R&D work. One key way this objective might be achieved would be to organize the R&D effort into a few key topical areas and to establish cross-laboratory steering groups comprised of researchers and administrators to keep the work focused and coordinated.
Another key issue that needs to be addressed is the appropriate management relationship between the DOE/NNSA laboratories and DOE headquarters. Speaking from my personal experiences as director of the Office of Energy Research, I have observed a penchant among Washington agencies to micromanage contractors. This is very wasteful of resources and results in much less performance per dollar spent than we should expect. Too little management also can be a problem, but to judge by the mood of recent years, the big worry will be too much management. Since the DOE/NNSA owns the laboratories, and the laboratories are managed (in principle) by contractors like the University of California and Lockheed-Martin, there is a long gauntlet of bureaucracies that can greatly diminish the labs' effectiveness. The time to optimize management strategies is now—before bad precedents are set.
I believe that DOE headquarters has a legitimate role to play in oversight of R&D work at the DOE/NNSA laboratories to ensure that taxpayer funds are being used effectively. DOE headquarters can best play this role by establishing, in consultation with the laboratories, directions and goals for the R&D work, and also in arranging for periodic programmatic reviews of the effectiveness of the R&D activities so that deficiencies can be identified and corrected. The national laboratories and their contractor management organizations should be left to the day-to-day management of this work and should not have to waste time and resources responding to demands for information from headquarters beyond the activities enumerated above.
Finally, the effectiveness of the homeland defense R&D effort will depend to a large extent on the adequacy, both in terms of magnitude and constancy, of the funding provided to undertake the work deemed to be important to homeland security. The new homeland security agency should recognize that the R&D effort will never end—technological capabilities to
inflict massive harm on U.S. populations are becoming increasingly widespread and accessible to terrorists worldwide. It will be necessary for the United States to mount an aggressive, long-term counterterrorism R&D effort to stay at least one step ahead of terrorist capabilities.
It may prove difficult to maintain funding for an effective R&D effort precisely because it will have improved the nation's success in preventing terrorist acts. As terrorist threats become less visible in the public consciousness, there will likely be less willingness to support the counterterrorism R&D effort in the face of other national priorities. As an analogy, consider the progressive erosion of support for the Federal Aviation Administration's federal marshals program as the number of airliner hijackings decreased in the 1970s and 1980s.
The funding pressures are likely to be manifested in at least two ways: Outright cutbacks in funding for the R&D work by the contracting agency (presumably the new homeland security agency), or an attempt to shift more of the R&D costs directly to the national laboratories by reducing reimbursements for overhead. I believe that the new homeland security agency should expect to pay its fair share of the costs of the R&D work undertaken for national benefit, including its fair share of the overhead costs.
Whatever the form of this new agency, I personally believe that it should have in its charter an explicit charge to undertake an adequately funded R&D effort through the DOE/NNSA national laboratories to support the homeland defense mission, and that it be required to seek advice periodically from independent advisory groups on both the scope and size
of an adequate effort. While this will not ensure that such support is provided, it will provide the agency and the Congress with an independent assessment of the resources needed to sustain an effective national effort.
This concludes my testimony to the committee. I would be happy to clarify my comments or answer committee members' questions. Again, thank you for the opportunity to testify.