By George Lobsenz

In an appointment that injects high-level nuclear policy experience into the top levels of the Energy Department, President Barack Obama late Tuesday named Daniel Poneman, a principal at The Scowcraft Group and a former senior nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration, as his choice to be deputy secretary of the department.

If confirmed by the Senate as the No. 2 official at DoE, Poneman will act as chief operating officer for all of the department’s far-flung scientific research, energy security and nuclear weapons and cleanup operations, but his selection clearly provides the nuclear expertise that Energy Secretary Steven Chu lacks.

In fact–due to his background and conflict-of-interest restrictions on Chu–Poneman appears likely to take the lead on management of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous DoE agency that operates the department’s nuclear weapons complex.

Sister publication The Energy Daily reported Feb. 6 that Chu is largely barred from involvement in decisions on contractual and financial management matters involving Los Alamos and Livermore national laboratories–NNSA’s two main weapons laboratories–because both are operated by the University of California in partnership with Bechtel Corp.; the restrictions on Chu stem from his former position as director of DoE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which also is operated by the University of California.

The restrictions on Chu regarding the weapons labs also pose difficulties for DoE management of NNSA because under the law establishing NNSA as a separate semi-autonomous agency, only the DoE secretary or deputy secretary has the authority to order NNSA officials to take certain management actions.

Beyond the restrictions on Chu, Poneman’s expertise on nuclear nonproliferation policy dovetails with Obama’s plans to expand NNSA’s nonproliferation operations. The Energy Daily reported Feb. 19 that preliminary documents prepared by the White House Office of Management and Budget on Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2010 budget for DoE showed that as part of a designated “presidential initiative,” the administration wants to increase NNSA spending on nonproliferation over the next 10 years by several billion dollars more than was previously allocated by the Bush administration.

Obama also emphasized his interest in nonproliferation in recent talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in which they pledged to expand U.S.-Russian cooperation in that area.

Poneman brings strong credentials to advance Obama’s nonproliferation agenda at DoE due to the extensive experience he gained on the issue in the Clinton administration. Most notably, from 1993 through 1996, Poneman had a hand in key nonproliferation initiatives, such as the 1994 agreement with North Korea aimed at halting its weapons program, as special assistant to the president and senior director for nonproliferation and export controls at the National Security Council (NSC).

Poneman joined the NSC staff in 1990 under the first President Bush as director of defense policy and arms control, after serving as a White House Fellow in the Energy Department in 1989.

During his time at the NSC, Poneman also was involved in the Clinton administration’s controversial decision to privatize DoE’s uranium enrichment operations, resulting in the creation of USEC Inc. The privatization was questioned by some critics because it handed over to the private, for-profit USEC responsibility for carrying out the U.S. government’s landmark 1993 nonproliferation agreement with Russia under which Russia agreed to sell high-enriched weapons uranium to the United States for conversion into commercial reactor fuel.

Poneman has remained active in nuclear policy affairs in recent years, including serving on numerous government and DoE commissions on nonproliferation, nuclear power and the operation of DoE’s nuclear weapons complex.

In particular, he was a contributor to a September 2000 report by former Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) to President Clinton and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson on the loss of classified computer hard drives at Los Alamos.

More recently, Poneman served as head of a policy subcommittee of DoE’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee. And in a November 2008 report to former Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, Poneman and other members of the policy subcommittee recommended DoE continue with the licensing of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository while also exploring interim storage and fuel recycling options.

The policy subcommittee also called for continued U.S. support of efforts by the Bush administration, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Russia and other nations to set up international nuclear fuel banks to supply other countries interested in building and operating new nuclear plants so they do not have to establish weapons-sensitive uranium enrichment or spent nuclear fuel processing facilities.

Poneman currently is chairman of a working group established by the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States on countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The commission is expected to issue final recommendations this year on U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

Since 2001, Poneman has been a principal of The Scowcroft Group, the international business advisory firm establish by Brent Scowcraft, former national security adviser to the first President Bush. Before that, he was a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Hogan & Hartson.