Here’s what Bruce Held said

Y12_06_MPWhen the leadoff speaker is still being talked about at the end of a multi-day conference, that’s usually an indication that the opening speech was especially provocative or extraordinary in some way, that other speakers didn’t live up to billing (it’s actually possible for important people to say uninteresting, unimportant things) or both. Whatever the case, comments made by Acting NNSA Administrator Bruce Held, the keynote speaker on Day One, were repeated and discussed throughout the Nuclear Deterrence Summit held last week outside Washington, D.C.

What generated a lot of talk were Held’s comments about a “public interest” model for contracting at the NNSA’s national laboratories, a move away from high fees and profit-making and a move toward the greater interests of the nation. When federal contractors hear references to the government possibly chopping fees their ears tend to get a little bigger.

Actually, Held didn’t use the term “public interest” approach in his speech. I received a copy of the prepared text of Held’s speech, which he wrote himself, and he said, “We need to treat the national laboratories not as profit-maximizing contractors but as strategic partners committed to exceptional service in the national interest.” This morning, I listened to my recording of his talk and compared it to the prepared text and noted that he tweaked that sentence just a little, saying, “We need to treat the national laboratories not as profit-maximizing contractors, which they are not, but as strategic partners committed to exceptional service in the national interest.”

It was during the question-and-answer session that followed his speech that Held referenced the public interest model and future governance of the national labs. In response to a question about the state of the currently stalled Y-12-Pantex combined contract and the future of NNSA contracts following that, Held gave a brief summary of the Y-12/Pantex protest situation residing in GAO and then said this:

“In looking at the broader complex, in looking at our governance approach, I believe – and more importantly Secretary Moniz believes as well – that we need to move to a public interest approach . . . For the past 20 years, we have moved to an approach where there is kind of creeping privatization of the national laboratories. I think that is unwise.  I think, again, the laboratories exist to serve the public interest, not to make profits. And that will affect our structure of the contract mechanisms. They are legally contractors, but having lived at one of those laboratories (Sandia) for close to a decade that’s not what motivates people to work there. What motivates people who work there, to use Sandia’s model of Exceptional Service in the National Interest, and those people really believe it. And we’ll get more cost-effective, more mission-efective, and more cost-efficient outcomes if we move back to a public-interest model.’’

In post-speech meeting with reporters, Held elaborated a bit more in response to a question from Todd Jacobson of the Nuclear Security & Deterrence newsletter and said big management fees aren’t the answer. “I think if we look at what we’re trying to motivate is really scientific excellence, for them to take on issues that we can’t deal with, we need other options.”

Here is the prepared text for Bruce Held’s speech, entitled, “Enduring NNSA Responsibilities and Key Challenges”:

Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you this morning. You are all busy people and I appreciate your valuable time.

As you may know, I am a retired CIA clandestine operations officer. Some of the collateral damage of my career in the shadows is that I have a bit of a respiratory problem. I get short of breath and cough a lot and that can be distracting to an audience. So, I apologize for that in advance.

I am both honored to speak with you today and a bit surprised. As an old spook, I know a lot about US national security and something about leading talented people working in high performance organizations. But, quite honestly, some of you have forgotten more about nuclear weapons than I will ever know.

Last June, Secretary Moniz asked me to be Acting Administrator, not for my nuclear expertise, but to address some urgent leadership and cultural issues facing the talented people working within the high performance organization of NNSA.

So far at least, the Secretary seems reasonably satisfied with that decision.

But NNSA is a critically important national security element of the U.S. government that deserves a permanent leadership team.

Frank Klotz and Madelyn Creedon are deeply experienced and wise people who would make a great team as NNSA Administrator and Deputy Administrator. So, as a fellow citizen, I sincerely urge the Senate to confirm them both as soon as possible.


With my intelligence officer perspective, I come away from my time as Acting Administrator with the belief that NNSA has five enduring responsibilities:

1)   Assure the nuclear safety of NNSA operations vis-à-vis our workforce, our community, and our environment.

2)   Protect nuclear security by keeping weapons-useable material and classified information out of the hands of malicious actors, including those intent on an act of nuclear terrorism.

3)   Maintain a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent for America in a world with nuclear weapons.

4)   Promote and prepare for a world without nuclear weapons.

5)   Steward the taxpayer’s dollar effectively and efficiently.

During the course of this conference, my colleagues will speak in more depth about specific topics… including Gary Harencak, Terry Benedict, and Don Cook on nuclear weapons…Ellen Tauscher, Rose Gottemoeller, and Anne Harrington on arms control and non-proliferation issues…and my mentor and hero Vic Reis on governance and on the strategic importance of Small Modular Reactors.

Deputy Secretary Poneman will then provide a wrap up.

Allow me, however, 15 minutes to outline some key challenges within each of NNSA’s five, interrelated areas of enduring responsibility.

That will leave us 20 minutes for questions and open discussion.


First and foremost to my mind must be nuclear safety. Nuclear safety is an essential precondition to all other things nuclear.

That core value traces back to the founding of the naval reactor program by Admiral Hyman Rickover. For Rickover, the idea that budget considerations create a tradeoff between nuclear safety and nuclear mission was utter nonsense. To the contrary, Rickover knew that excellence in nuclear safety enables and drives excellence in nuclear mission.

I believe strongly that we within NNSA would be wise to remember our Rickover heritage and reenergize our first priority commitment to nuclear safety.

In that context, key nuclear safety challenges facing NNSA today include, first:

Modernizing the aged infrastructure for enriched uranium processing at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge. I was down there again last week and must tell you that the physical condition of Building 9212 – while safe to operate in for the time being – does not communicate to any objective observer a first priority commitment to nuclear safety. That must change.

We must also:

–         Modernize the aged infrastructure for plutonium processing at Los Alamos.

–         Reinvigorate criticality safety operations at the plutonium processing facility in Los Alamos, and

–         Replace conventional high explosives in the deployed nuclear stockpile – wherever we can reliably do so – with safer, insensitive high explosives.

These are all doable.

If, heaven forbid,  we have a nuclear safety accident because we have not done them, then we may forever forfeit the support of the American people for all things nuclear.

Nuclear Security is next and is central to NNSA’s name, the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Yet security failures within our nuclear weapons complex have regularly damaged public trust and confidence that DOE and NNSA leadership is competent to manage a national security responsibility of such profound importance.

A root cause of these security failures identified by General Sandy Finan has been a confused chain of security command responsibility in which many assert authority but few accept responsibility and accountability.

This is an issue that Secretary Moniz has moved aggressively to address as part of his strategic approach to governing DOE as one coherent enterprise.

Key nuclear security challenges facing NNSA today include:

1)   Transforming NNSA security – and DOE security more broadly – from a culture of compliance to a culture of mission performance, responsibility, and accountability.

2)   Promoting a community-based approach to more effectively mitigate the Insider Threat.

3)   Consolidating weapons-useable plutonium to an even smaller number of top security sites, as we have already done with enriched uranium, and

4)   A matter of keen personal interest, innovating a counterintelligence-based approach to cyber security that imposes risk and consequence on cyber spies, thieves, and vandals in a more mission effective and cost efficient way.


The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review reaffirms that in a world with nuclear weapons, NNSA has the mission responsibility to maintain a safe, secure and reliable nuclear deterrent for America and her allies.

At the same time, the NPR calls for reducing the role that nuclear weapons play in US national security planning, with an ultimate goal of a world with zero nuclear weapons.

During a recent visit to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a young nuclear weapons scientist asked me about this apparent contradiction in the NPR.

Noting that he had a family to support, the young scientist asked whether there was a long term future for him in the NNSA national laboratories or whether he should take his PhD to Silicon Valley or elsewhere.

That is a good and honest question and it deserves a thoughtful answer.

By happy chance, I had just re-read the NPR on the plane ride out to California. As an immediate answer to the young scientist’s question, I referred him to pages 40-43 of the NPR. Those pages underscore the counterintuitive point that, as the number of nuclear weapons goes down, the importance of the human and physical capital resident within the NNSA nuclear weapons complex goes up.

The NPR says that robust investment in the intellectual and infrastructure foundation of the NNSA labs and plants is not contradictory to our arms control and non-proliferation goals but, to the contrary, it is essential to those goals.

Indeed, in a future world of zero nuclear weapons, smart and talented people will be America’s strategic deterrent.

The young Livermore scientist liked that last sound bite; I think he liked the image of himself sitting around strategically deterring bad guys while drinking his morning coffee.

I liked it too.

But on the plane ride back to Washington DC the magnitude of the challenges – both conceptual and practical – of transforming that sound bite into reality began to sink in.

–         In an uncertain strategic environment, what is the appropriate size and composition of our nuclear arsenal?

–         In an austere budget environment, how do we win support for the long overdue recapitalization of physical infrastructure within our nuclear security enterprise?

–         What advanced verification and monitoring capabilities are needed to protect against strategic surprise and, thus, enable America to securely reduce our nuclear stockpile?

–         In a highly competitive economy, how do we challenge and motivate bright young scientists to work on nuclear weapons if our ultimate goal is to get rid of them?

–         Finally, in a future world of zero, what will be the reason for the NNSA nuclear weapons complex to even exist?

These are very difficult questions to which I am not confident that we have articulated sufficiently thoughtful answers.

I am confident, however, that the people attending this conference are the right people to help us to begin framing those answers.


That brings me to NNSA’s responsibility to effectively and efficiently steward the taxpayer’s dollar.

First, I will be honest and admit that NNSA simply must do better at managing multibillion dollar, mega-projects like the MOX facility in South Carolina and the Uranium Processing Facility in Tennessee.

To this end, NNSA is learning important lessons in project management from Office of Science colleagues like Thom Mason at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Moreover, as Bob Raines will discuss with you tomorrow afternoon, NNSA has already turned things around and is meeting GAO’s expectations on large projects up to $750 million.

We are making progress but still more work needs to be done, and Secretary Moniz’ creation of an Under Secretary for Performance and Management will help drive that effort.

That said, I will be equally honest and say that I do not believe America needs national laboratories for the purpose of being the lowest cost producer of widgets. As an economist by education, I believe that role of lowest cost producer more legitimately belongs to America’s private sector.

What America needs national laboratories for is to deliver exceptional value to the taxpayer by discovering solutions to the most difficult and high risk technical challenges facing our country; challenges that involve greater risk than private sector actors can honestly bear.

At the end of the Cold War, we needed national laboratories to develop a deep scientific basis for certifying the safety, security, and reliability of our nuclear stockpile in the absence of nuclear explosive testing.

To enable a future world of zero nuclear weapons, we will need national laboratories to develop advanced technologies and strategies for arms control verification and monitoring.

And in between, we will need national laboratories to think big and take risks in order to help US national security decision makers understand and address key strategic issues including nuclear terrorism, the asymmetric cyber threat to American economic well-being, and climate change.

To consistently succeed in meeting such enormous challenges in a mission effective and cost efficient manner will require NNSA to adopt a more agile governance model towards the nuclear weapons complex, particularly the national laboratories.

We need to treat the national laboratories not as profit maximizing contractors but as strategic partners committed to exceptional service in the national interest.

The Congressional Advisory Panel on NNSA Governance led by Norm Augustine and Rich Mies has brought helpful focus to this important issue and Secretary Moniz is aggressively leading NNSA in that direction.


With that, I will conclude my brief overview.

Again, I sincerely appreciate your time and attention and look forward to your questions and input.


Photo credit: KNS/Michael Patrick

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.