Questions the U.S. Senate Should Ask Key Nominees On Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Threats

By Bill Beaver, Yong-Bee Lim, Christine Parthemore and Andy Weber

As the past few years have taught the United States and the global community, nuclear, chemical, and biological (NCB) threats are both very real and loom larger than they have in the recent past. States such as Russia, Syria, and North Korea have used chemical weapons for purposes ranging from assassinations to reprehensible, general attacks against their respective nation’s own citizens. Nations are still dealing with the public health, security, economic, and geopolitical impacts of COVID-19, which shed a light on the vulnerabilities that even the most developed countries in the world face from natural sources – vulnerabilities that could be exploited in the event of a deliberate biological attack. And the world is still facing the question of how to address recent uses of chemical weapons, and disturbing changes in the nuclear weapons arena.

With this geopolitical environment in mind, this post proposes some of our questions for two experts nominated for critical positions in the Biden administration whose confirmation hearings are coming up this week: 

  • Jill Hruby, a trailblazer in countering-weapons of mass destruction nominated as Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), part of the Department of Energy (DOE)); and 
  • Heidi Shyu, a deeply experienced defense leader nominated as Under Secretary for Research and Engineering at the Department of Defense (DoD).

For Heidi Shyu, whose confirmation hearing is Tuesday, May 25th:

With a mission statement of “fostering technological dominance across the Department of Defense,” the Under Secretary for Research and Engineering at DoD is tasked with the development and oversight of the DOD’s technology strategy given the agency’s current and future assets, capabilities, and goals. This role is critically important in addressing biological threats in particular. Questions we have include:

  • Innovators in the private sector and academia are researching new technologies that hold great promise for addressing biothreats through early detection and warning, data analytics, and rapid medical countermeasure development. If confirmed, how will you help make sure DoD is researching, developing, and acquiring the best technologies U.S. innovators have to offer?
  • In recent years, DoD has recognized the strategic importance to the nation—and advantages to our defense forces—of the U.S. being a key leader in biotechnology. How will you help ensure that DoD plays a key role in this field, as an implementer and in steering and shaping the bio economy to be sure defense needs are met?
  • As of this writing, the homepage of the R&E website notes the impressive DoD cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services for addressing the COVID-19 crisis. How will you help ensure this continues into the future? 

Equally important, as we wrote in our recent briefer on DoD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Programs, the nation needs a program of activities—such as an annual exercise program—to fully leverage and continually improve defense and interagency capabilities for rapidly understanding and developing countermeasures for emerging biological threats.We hope Shyu will be asked:

  • If confirmed, will you champion an aggressive approach to exercising and taking advantage of DoD’s incredible testing and evaluation infrastructure in this manner?  

For Jill Hruby, whose hearing is Thursday, May 27th:

The Undersecretary for Nuclear Security at the NNSA, who also functions as the Administrator of the NNSA, is tasked with 1) designing, producing, and maintaining safe and effective nuclear weapons for the United States; 2) researching and developing safe nuclear propulsion systems for naval purposes; and 3) promoting nuclear nonproliferation and safety in the international arena. As such, we believe the Senate should ask her two overarching questions that we also proposed be asked of one of her counterparts nominated for nuclear weapons leadership at DoD:

  • As a key civilian leader of the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise, how will you help execute and ensure proper civilian oversight of the military in this field?
  • If confirmed, how will you use your Nuclear Weapons Council leadership to help pursue policy directions set by the president?

Safety of nuclear work at the National Labs is also likely to be raised. The Senate could ask:

  • If confirmed, how will you work with and implement recommendations by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency with a critical role in monitoring the safety of the Labs’ nuclear work?

Additionally, the Department of Energy’s work in countering biological threats has been historically under-appreciated. Yet the DOE Labs bring critical capabilities to the nation in this area. If confirmed, as one of DOE’s key leaders and a former head of Sandia National Laboratories, we hope Hruby becomes a key supporter of the department being recognized as a key component of a forward-leaning national strategy for addressing biological threats.  

For both of these key players in national security, the Biden administration has a unique opportunity to empower these two positions to set priorities and guide the U.S. in a technologically-sound and strategically-smart direction. This would help the U.S. make great strides towards addressing nuclear, chemical, and biological threats at a pivotal moment. 


Categories & Related