Response to March 17 Op-Ed

On March 24th Jeff Bingaman responded to my March 17th Op-ed in the New York Times.

“A Nuclear Waste,” by Stephanie Cooke (Op-Ed, March 18), suggests that we transfer control of nuclear weapons technology development to the Defense Department. That would overturn one of the most fundamental decisions made about nuclear weapons after World War II: that their destructive potential set them apart from conventional munitions.

Our principle of nonmilitary control of the nuclear arsenal has been emulated by other major nuclear weapons states, like Russia and China, neither of which vests control of its nuclear weapons development complex in its military.

Nonmilitary control of our nuclear arsenal has allowed our country to gain the trust of other nuclear nations. This was particularly useful when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Civilian employees of the Energy Department were the first to enter the “closed” nuclear cities to secure nuclear materials.

Our national security is still well served by a trusted and independent, science-based capability that can speak authoritatively about the safety and reliability of our nuclear weapons.

I am confident that under the capable leadership of Secretary Steven Chu, the Energy Department can both advance our nation’s energy priorities and continue to manage our nuclear arsenal.

Jeff Bingaman
Washington, March 19, 2009

The writer is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

3 Responses to “Response to March 17 Op-Ed”

  1. cuapiocontranuclear  on April 9th, 2009

    We should think about what is best for the country. Mr Bingaman’s letter does not address the main point of the op-ed which is that the country needs an energy dept that is not beholden to nuclear and is not weighed down by the nuclear weapons complex.

  2. Jim Joosten  on May 6th, 2009

    Senator Bingaman makes an excellent point concerning the importance of maintaining civilian oversight of the nuclear weapons complex. Certainly, it may be possible to move the nuclear weapons program (NNSA) out from underneath the DOE Secretary and still maintain it as a civilian agency – thereby accomplishing both Senator Bingaman’s and Stephanie Cooke’s objectives. However, I’d note that the arguments for relocating NNSA may not be as strong as the op-ed piece would seem to suggest and there may be downsides.

    First, the National Nuclear Security Agency and the DOE Civilian Office of Nuclear Energy do share the same word “nuclear” in their titles. However, there is no evidence that the funding of the two programs is co-mingled and therefore dwarfs the renewable and fossil energy development funds. The NNSA is a semi-independent agency within DOE. It has its own budget which is entirely separate from the Civilian Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE/NE). A quick check of the FY2008 appropriations shows that the Civilian Nuclear Energy funding level was $1.03 billion while Fossil Energy funding was roughly equivalent at $0.9 billion. Both of these programs were dwarfed by the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program funding level of $1.7 billion. So, it is hard to argue that DOE is “beholden” to civilian nuclear energy or that the weapons program unduly influences civilian nuclear power development funding.

    Stephanie’s op-ed also reminds us all that energy and the environment go hand in had. However, its worth noting that in 2008, DOE’s total environmental management program funding was about $6.3 billion, versus only $3.8 billion for energy development. This suggests that the environment has not taken a back seat to nuclear energy development. Quite the opposite. Moreover, the funding for civilian radioactive waste managment ($0.4 billion) is totally dwarfed by the overall level of environmental program funding.

    Without trying to argue either the pros or cons of the op-ed piece, I’m simply trying to make the point, as Senator Bingaman did, that any restructuring of DOE will require a careful analysis in order to understand the true benefits and losses. Stephanie has raised some thought provoking questions and initiated the debate. I look forward to hearing other view points.

    — Jim Joosten, Washington, May 6, 2009

  3. Stephanie Cooke  on May 13th, 2009

    I would call attention to a breakdown of DOE energy r&d spend for FY 2009 as calculated by Robert Alvarez of the Institute of Policy Studies. His figures show the following: nuclear (fission and fusion) – $1.6 billion, fossil $1.1 billion, conservation $844 million, vehicles $273 million, electric transmission $137 million, fuel cells $169 million, biomass $217 million, wind $55 million, geothermal $44 million, water $40 million. This does not include the overlay of the stimulus money, which is spread over two years. The underlying spend pattern remains very similar in the Obama Administration’s proposed energy r&d spend for 2010, according to Alvarez. See his analysis. I’d be interested to know — what is the public getting for the nearly $2 billion spent each year on nuclear energy r&d?

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