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Proposed overhaul of DOE picks up steam

WASHINGTON -- A call for a radical overhaul of the Department of Energy gained momentum in Congress Tuesday as Republican and Democratic senators agreed "fundamental changes" are needed in the management of the nation's nuclear weapons program.

And Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, while continuing to resist creation of a largely independent nuclear weapons agency within his department said he agreed "more needs to be done" to improve security at weapons labs and that he might support some department restructuring."The nuclear weapons complex needs to be rescued from the Energy Department" Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said at an unusual hearing of four Senate committees.

The hearing focused on a report by the president's intelligence advisory board, released last week, that said security problems in the weapons programs, including the labs, cannot be resolved short of creation of a semiautonomous nuclear agency.

Summarizing the report for the senators, former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman, the advisory board's chairman said the Energy Department "is badly broken and it's long past time for half measures" to ensure nuclear weapons security.

Richardson, who testified along with Rudman, said he was ready to accept 90 percent of the Rudman panel's recommendations, but he still opposes creation of "a bureaucratic Berlin Wall" that would separate the weapons program from the rest of the Energy Department. He said this would reduce the energy secretary's future authority.

Richardson also indicated the administration may accept some reshuffling of the department to consolidate the nuclear programs, but he still said the proposal for a largely independent nuclear agency " would blur the lines of authority" between the department's science and weapons programs and reduce the authority of the energy secretary.

Meanwhile, department officials as many as 5,000 nuclear scientists and other officials with top-secret clearances will be given lie detector tests as part of a broader program to beef up security and anti-espionage programs.