The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) leader should get a fixed term, senior agency managers should be exempted from Senate approval and the stockpile’s steward should strive for a closer contractual relationship with its nuclear-weapons laboratories, a National Academies report concluded.

The 14-member National Academy of Public Administration panel that produced the report had a “vigorous debate” about these recommendations, Jonathan Breul, the co-chair of the study, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. 

Those were three of the 16 proposals in the roughly 100-page final report, “Governance and Management of the Nuclear Security Enterprise.”

The academies’ Laboratory Assessments Board published the report last week, capping four-and-a-half years of back-and-forth with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that included twice-monthly conference calls with Steve Erhart and William “Ike” White, then senior officials in the office of the NNSA administrator, Breul said.

The NNSA is the semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy that runs civilian nuclear weapons programs. The agency modernizes and maintains all U.S. warheads and bombs.

As in an interim report published in March, the panel’s final report did not endorse a specific fixed term for the administrator but pointed instead to a recommendation in the 2014 Augustine-Mies report on the NNSA that called for a minimum six-year term. The administrator should still be a presidential appointee who is confirmed by the Senate, the panel said.

Six years is longer than any NNSA administrator in history has served. Thomas D’Agostino, who has since departed for a career in industry, has the record at just over five years and five months. According to the panel’s final report, the average gap between each of the five Senate-confirmed NNSA administrators to date is 247 days.

Unlike the administrator, nominees for NNSA principal deputy administrator, deputy administrator for defense programs or deputy administrator for defense nonproliferation should no longer have to be approved by the Senate, the panel said.

“[W]e were persuaded that removing them from Senate confirmation would help move them along,” Breul told sister publication Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor.

Fixing the administrator’s term, and removing Senate oversight from lower-level leadership nominees would require Congress to change the law.

Pressed about the likelihood of the Senate giving up its influence on a position such as deputy administrator for defense programs, a role that conveys far-reaching influence on the NNSA’s bread-and-butter nuclear-weapons modernization programs, Breul acknowledged that “[i]t’s a choice that could be made the other way.”

Meanwhile, Breul said the report also encourages a closer relationship between NNSA headquarters in Washington and the agency’s three nuclear weapons labs: the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico that design weapons, and the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and California that handle much of the non-nuclear engineering for the weapons.

That, Breul said, might be challenging, given the culturally ingrained independence at each of these labs, which are managed as federally funded research and development centers. The design labs especially have their own cultures, ingrained since the early days of the Cold War.

“We were trying to make sure that all the [management and operations contractors] had a close relationship and we wanted NNSA to look at that and find a way to see if there was a more effective way of contracting,” Breul said. “Particularly with regard to improving science and engineering staff.”

To that end, the NNSA administrator “should convene a working group” to figure out how Washington and the labs can have “closer than normal contractual relationships,” the final report says. That working group should include laboratory and NNSA staff, plus “experts from other agencies” such as the Department of Defense.

In the final report, the national academies’ panel said that senior laboratory management is often unaware of the stress faced by science and engineering personnel, some of who have reported becoming bogged down in administrative tasks that, the panel said, could be handled by less-costly personnel. 

Breul said the NNSA might consider directing the laboratories to conduct something analogous to the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: an annual effort to gauge job satisfaction among the civil service.

“[A]t this point, NNSA is hesitating to do that, out of respect, indeed, for the independence and the different way that each of the labs operate,” Breul said.

“Some of these things are difficult to do and to understand, but they’re critically important to the mission,” said Breul.