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Why Does The Energy Department Control The Nuclear Arsenal?

A dubiously sourced New York Times story showcases Rick Perry’s apparent surprise that the Department of Energy controls the U.S. nuclear arsenal Wednesday.

The Energy Department’s control of the arsenal stems from the U.S. tradition of civilian control. Civilian control of the U.S. military and nuclear arsenal stem from the core belief that too much power should not be concentrated in the military’s hands, and that military officials must be accountable to elected officials.

After World War II, Congress held a contentious debate concerning who should control nuclear weapons and energy research. The U.S. military wanted to retain control of the program, while several of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project insisted on civilian control of the awesome power of nuclear weapons. Congress and President Harry Truman sided with the scientists and created the civilian Atomic Energy Commission.

This norm of civilian control led to the Energy Department’s control of the nuclear weapons program, and the creation of separate administration to administer the actual nuclear weapons program. Congress created the National Nuclear Security Administration in 2000. The NNSA “maintains and enhances the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing.”

Within this directive the NNSA maintains active U.S. nuclear weapons, undertakes any efforts to extend the life of deployed weapons, and is charge of eventually dismantling weapons when they are disengaged.

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