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Nuclear safety board announces staff cuts

SANTA FE – The independent board that provides important safety oversight and public reports about the nation’s nuclear weapons labs, including two in New Mexico, is making a major staff cut at its national headquarters, although it is increasing the number of positions for field inspectors at the weapons sites.

Bruce Hamilton, acting chair of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said the organization is “right-sizing” by eliminating overlapping layers of staff in Washington, D.C., that had become “process-burdened” and which hinder the flow of information to the board members.

Coupling that change with more inspectors “in the field actually seeing what’s going on” should make DFSNB operations more effective, said Hamilton. The number of inspectors will increase from 10 to 18.

Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group said the board’s plan to cut 46 percent of the headquarters staff is a “fatal blow” in combination with a recent Department of Energy order to place new restrictions on communications with the DNFSB. The weapons labs are part of the DOE.

“There is no doubt that killing the Safety Board, or turning it into a zombie agency, is exactly the idea of those who have proposed these so-called ‘reforms,’ ” said Mello.

U.S. Sens Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrats, said more information is needed about “such a drastic proposal” and that they want to talk to Hamilton.

Last year, the then-chair of the DNFSB proposed doing away with the board altogether as a “Cold War relic.” And the head of the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration recommended eliminating weekly inspectors’ reports on the weapons labs that are posted online, alleging that the bad news the reports can generate might keep lab workers from reporting safety issues.

The DNCSB reports provide the only regular public information on safety issues behind the security fences of facilities like Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. The board inspectors’ reports of safety lapses at LANL have generated prominent news coverage.

Hamilton wouldn’t confirm numbers of jobs that are being cut and said attrition has taken care of most of the staff reductions. Mello says he has received information from sources that current authorized DNFSB positions will be cut from 117, including the five board member slots, to 79, with the headquarters staff going from 102 to 56, plus the five board slots.

Hamilton stressed that approval of the changes was bipartisan. He’s a Republican who was appointed to the board, which can have no more than three of five members from one party, by former President Barack Obama and then was named acting chair by President Donald Trump earlier this year. The other three board members are Obama-appointed Democrats, with one slot vacant.

Hamilton said there was a majority vote for the staff changes and details of the vote will be made public this week.

Udall and Heinrich called for consultation by the safety board with Congress and others before such a “sweeping reorganization.”

Here is their full statement:

“The DNSFB provides critical oversight to ensure safety for workers at New Mexico’s nuclear security labs and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and for the surrounding communities. Safety and security lapses at DOE nuclear sites show that it is important that we have a strong and independent DNFSB. That’s why we worked to pass an amendment to ensure that the DNSFB has a budget that is adequate for the complex and extremely serious work that they do.

“A sweeping reorganization proposal for the DNFSB — which would likely result in staff reductions — should at the bare minimum include an in-depth consultation process with stakeholders, the public, board membership, and Congress. It is especially important that full and transparent consultation take place given the Trump administration’s previous efforts to weaken the DNFSB and even terminate the board entirely.

“We would welcome the addition of a new field office in Albuquerque and new resident inspectors at nuclear security sites in New Mexico, including at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. However, we do not believe that the addition of new inspectors necessitates the reduction of staff levels elsewhere within the board.

“In light of the administration’s posture toward the DNSFB and its attempts to undermine the board, Congress, stakeholders and the public need much more information about such a drastic reorganization proposal. In addition, we continue to demand a full account of what is changing under DOE’s previous order affecting information sharing with DNFSB. We are seeking a meeting to discuss our concerns with Acting Chairman Hamilton in the near future.”