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Two board members question move by nuclear safety agency

SANTA FE – In an unusual move, two members of an independent federal board that provides oversight of the nation’s nuclear weapons labs has gone public with criticism of a recent agreement they say compromises the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s objectivity.

In a letter posted on the DNFSB’s website, board members Jessie Roberson and Daniel J. Santos objected to a recent agreement between the board and the federal Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Safety Administration that details a safety board employee to the NNSA for 120 days or more. The weapons labs are part of the NNSA.

The board employee will work in an NNSA office that coordinates legislative activities with congressional staffers in support of “the budget and policy interests of the NNSA’s weapons activities and defense nuclear nonproliferation programs” and tracks the annual defense budget bill.

In their letter to the other three members of the DNFSB, Roberson and Santos said, “This action diminishes the DNFSB’s execution of its mission by unnecessarily raising doubts about the objectivity and independence of the work of the DNFSB.”

Roberson and Santos said the letter was intended to document their “previously communicated strong objections” to deploying safety board staff to¬† “any office in the DOE whose duties are external advocacy on behalf of organizations and functions the DFNSB is required by statute to independently evaluate.”

The advisory board was created by Congress as an independent agency to monitor potential threats to public safety from federal nuclear weapons work. It has offices at various facilities around the country and posts inspectors’ weekly safety issues reports about Los Alamos National Laboratory and several other sites. The DNFSB’s latest public hearing on Los Alamos took place in June in Santa Fe, focusing on LANL’s plutonium work.

The Aug. 11 letter from Roberson and Santos suggests they were outvoted on detailing the staffer to NNSA by the three other board members – Sean Sullivan, Bruce Hamilton and Joyce Connery. The board has rejected previous proposed staff details to DOE, the letter says. No one from the NNSA or the DNFSB could be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico commended the two board members for raising objections. “It’s part of a continuing pattern to try and muzzle the board,” he said of the staff deal.

Don Hancock of the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center said it was “pretty unusual” to see a public split among DNFSB members, who are presidential appointees. “From the public’s standpoint, we need more confidence in the oversight of DOE and the NNSA, not less,” he said.