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Nuclear Safety Board Slams Energy Department Plan to Weaken Oversight

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Rebecca Moss reports for the Santa Fe Mexican in ProPublica:

A new Department of Energy order that could be used to withhold information from a federal nuclear safety board and prevent the board from overseeing worker safety at nuclear facilities appears to violate longstanding provisions in the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, the board’s members said Tuesday.

Members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, both Democrats and Republicans, were united in their criticism of the Energy Department’s order, published in mid-May. It prevents the board from accessing sensitive information, imposes additional legal hurdles on board staff, and mandates that Energy Department officials speak “with one voice” when communicating with the board.

The Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica first reported on the order’s existence in July but the board called for a special hearing, saying its members had no formal input before the document was finalized.

At that hearing in Washington, D.C., Tuesday morning, the first of three on the topic, officials from the Energy Department and its National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile, said the changes were largely innocuous and were necessary to update a 17-year-old guidance manual.

“It certainly is not intended to harm” the relationship between the department and the board, said William (Ike) White, chief of staff and associate principal deputy administrator for the nuclear security administration. He said the changes are designed to ensure agency leaders “have ownership and accountability for the decisions they make.”

But board members said such statements were at odds with the language of the order, which outlines broad restrictions and could exclude thousands of Department of Energy workers from the board’s safety oversight.

“To me the primary question is, is [the order] consistent with the Atomic Energy Act?” asked acting board chairman Bruce Hamilton. “In my view, it is not.”

Board members also questioned whether the department was systematically changing its approach to nuclear safety, which agency officials denied.

Already, the order has been cited in denying the board access to information about safety studies related to explosives at the Pantex Plant in Texas, and about a worker’s complaint and the reclassification of explosive reactions at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a technical expert for the board said.

The five-member board, which currently has one vacancy, was formed in 1988 near the close of the Cold War, as the public and Congress began to question the lack of accountability at the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies. Since the end of the Manhattan Project, the agencies had made their own rules and been largely self-regulating. Negligent safety practices contributed to cancer and other illnesses in nuclear workers exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals without proper protections, studies have shown.

Under the law, the board was granted wide access to information in order to make nuclear safety recommendations and add a layer of accountability and transparency to the Energy Department.

The Department of Energy has attempted to limit the safety board’s oversight function for more than a decade, but pressure has increased within the past year, advocates of the board say. Last summer, for example, the board’s then-chairman, who had been elevated into that role by the Trump administration, proposed dissolving the board entirely. A few months later, the National Nuclear Security Administration said the board should stop publishing weekly reports on issues at national laboratories because they were unflattering, citing media articles that referenced the reports. Neither one of those steps was implemented.

The Energy Department did not consult with the board, workers’ unions or residents who live near nuclear facilities before issuing the order, board members said. However, several private contractors who run national laboratories, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, were consulted, according to a memo referenced at the hearing.

Board member Joyce Connery said nuclear facilities are under stress because of aging buildings and staff turnover, even as they are called upon to greatly expand the production of nuclear weapons. This work is largely planned for New Mexico and South Carolina. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2018 at 3:35 pm

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