The personnel churn in the Trump administration’s nuclear-weapons enterprise and Joe Biden’s election as President of the United States highlight the urgency of giving the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) a fixed term, members of a National Academies panel said Wednesday.

“At the moment we not only have secretary and deputy secretary of energy positions that will be vacant [but] we don’t have a [National Nuclear Security Administration] administrator,” T.J. Glauthier, a deputy secretary of energy during the Clinton administration, said during a webcast meeting. “That’s a serious problem for an organization that has a really crucial mission and set of deadlines facing it.” 

Glauthier was one of the 14 people on a joint National Academy of Public Administration and National Academy of Sciences panel that spent the last four-and-half years studying the NNSA governance structure at Congress’ behest. Members of the panel on Wednesday briefed the public on the results of their study, which was finalized in October.

“We certainly hope that the next secretary [of energy] will be selected with an understanding of the responsibilities that that person has” for nuclear weapons programs,” Glauthier said. 

Biden had not announced his pick for Secretary of Energy at deadline for Defense Daily. NNSA is the semiautonomous DoE agency that runs civilian nuclear weapons programs.

Among 16 other things, the National Academies report recommended that the NNSA administrator should be a political appointee with a fixed term and that NNSA deputy administrators should no longer need Senate confirmation. The report didn’t recommend a fixed term. A 2014 report, usually called the Augustine-Mies report, called for a six year term. Congress would need to pass a law to make either change happen.

Just after the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette offered William Bookless, at the time the NNSA’s principal deputy administrator, the job of acting administrator. When Bookless accepted, on condition that he follow Brouillette’s directives, the secretary demanded that the then-current NNSA administrator, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, resign.

The move allowed Brouillette to tighten his control over lame-duck deck negotiations with Congress, which is still working to pass authorizing and appropriations bills for fiscal year 2021. Gordon-Hagerty and Brouillette had feuded for the past year over the size of the NNSA’s budget, with Gordon-Hagerty’s arguments for more money carrying the day with Republicans who controlled the Senate, and President Trump.

The National Academies panel members praised Gordon-Hagerty for her willingness to implement some of the proposed reforms in the group’s 100-page report. Dona Crawford, former associate director for computation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said there was even an “implementation plan” making the rounds internally at NNSA.

“We have not seen that document, but if that document is part of the next step, I think that’s a good next step to ensure that the management changes that have begun will continue and that they’ll focus on efficiently getting the mission done,” Crawford said.

The panel also credited Gordon-Hagerty for improving ties with the Pentagon via her relationship with Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment and chair of the Nuclear Weapons Council: a group that coordinates NNSA and DoD nuclear-weapons procurement.

There was a “stronger relationship” between Lord and Gordon-Hagerty than there had been between people who previously occupied their roles, Glauthier said Wednesday. “That has not only led to better communication between them, but it has enabled their staff to remain in closer and more frequent communication.”

But with President-elect Biden’s people now officially working on a transition to a new administration and Gordon-Hagerty gone, the panel wondered whether the momentum she built toward reform in just over two-and-a-half years on the job will sputter.

“The panel spent a lot of time over this issue of when do reforms get away from personalities who are driving it, which has certainly been true, and become institutionalized, no matter who the senior management is?” Donald Levy, the University of Chicago physics professor and panel co-chair, said Wednesday. “We’re about to find that out. We’re about to do that experiment.”