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Obama Keeps Head of Nuclear Weapons Program

The Obama Administration announced today that it will retain Thomas D'Agostino as head of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. The decision was met with dismay by many in the arms control and non-proliferation community, who fear that it will be harder to implement the soaring vision for a nuclear-free future that President Obama has articulated while retaining key figures from a Bush Administration that supported expansion of the country's nuclear arsenal.

As administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and undersecretary for nuclear security at the Department of Energy, D'Agostino oversees the nation's three weapons labs—Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia. The former Navy submarine officer and weapons manager assumed the job in August 2007, and many observers thought that the Obama Administration would bring in a fresh face once a mandated review of the country's nuclear policies was completed in December. However, sources tell ScienceInsider that several prominent scientists and nuclear policy heavyweights rejected the Administration's overtures, and that other candidates were thought to carry too much political baggage to be confirmed by the Senate. 

That left D'Agostino. "He's part of a triumvirate of Bush appointees who are committed to making further modifications in the U.S. nuclear weapons program," says Marylia Kelley of Tri Valley CAREs, an anti-nuclear group based in Livermore, California, noting that Obama also has retained Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton. "While I applaud the president's April 5th speech in Prague, my concern is with how we take the first steps toward that goal. And I don't think this decision bodes well for moving in the right direction."

Although D'Agostino doesn't need to go through the confirmation process again, his office is certain to be a lightning rod in the political debates as the Administration tries to negotiate arms control and non-proliferation treaties while preserving the viability of the country's current stockpile. He's also responsible for defining the role of the weapons labs on issues ranging from renewable energy to national security.

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D–NM), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and hails from a state where both Los Alamos and Sandia are located, offered a lukewarm endorsement of the re-appointment by expressing his confidence that D'Agostino "understands our laboratories’ capabilities very well [and] will support strengthening their science resources, ensuring they play a pivotal role for the nation."