Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Something is going on with the independent board that oversees safety issues at the nation’s weapons facilities. People keep trying to kill it off or change it or push it away.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board was created by Congress in 1988 to, as a history of the DNFB posted on its website says, “provide advice and recommendations to the secretary of energy regarding public health and safety at the defense nuclear facilities managed by the Department of Energy.”
As part of that role, the presidentially appointed DNFSB has become the main source of public information on the nitty-gritty details of what goes on behind the security fences of DOE facilities like Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Its inspectors provide brief regular reports, weekly or monthly, about safety issues at the weapons labs, and the board issues longer, more detailed reports and recommendations from time to time.
A small number of the DNFSB’s findings have become the basis for news reports about LANL.
Board information spurred a Journal story about shortcomings in LANL’s handling of simulations of potential disasters like an earthquake or an active shooter. Also making the news was the DNFSB’s taking note of various workplace safety issues.
In other words, the DNFSB has been doing what it’s supposed to do, and newspapers have reported on that.
Over the past year, there have been efforts to change or even get rid of the DNFSB. Dealing with the board apparently can be a hassle for the weapons labs and their contract operators, and the safety board’s reports sometimes generate bad news.
In 2017, the DNFSB’s then-chairman proposed that the agency be dissolved as a relic of the Cold War and duplicative of the safety efforts by DOE’s own National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the labs. The chairman, part of the five-member board’s Republican minority, quit after the proposal failed to gain traction.
Then NNSA’s leader suggested blocking public access to the DNFSB reports, maintaining that the negative news stories that sometimes result might keep weapons facility workers from reporting safety problems. This idea also never came to fruition.
Now there are two new developments.
The current acting chairman, also a Republican, proposed cutting the board’s headquarters staff by 46 percent, but with an increase to the DNFSB’s field inspector staff from 10 to 18. He says cutting the headquarters staff from 102 to 56 plus the five board members will remove “overlapping layers” that are hindering the flow of information to board members, and that having more people in the field “seeing what’s actually going on” is a better use of resources.
Two of three Democrats on the board joined in approving the reorganization in a recent vote (the fifth board slot, the former chair’s position, remains unfilled).
But dissenting board member Joyce Connery said in written comments that the “sweeping change” of the staff reduction is arbitrary, there has been no analysis of how the DNFSB will continue to meet its statutory duties with the staff cuts and the board has yet to receive the results of a $250,000 study on how to improve its effectiveness.
“Any significant attempt at diminution of the Agency, its mission, or function, should be considered in full public view with stakeholders able to make their views known,” she wrote.
New DOE rule
Perhaps more impactful is a new DOE order that appears to reduce the DNFSB’s oversight role, and put restrictions on communications between DOE facilities and the safety board.
The order also has language that suggests that lab worker safety is not an issue for DNFSB oversight, or is at least not an issue when the DOE says there’s no threat to general public health and safety, which it defines as health and safety beyond the boundaries of a nuclear facility.
On those grounds, the order removes a category of lower “Hazard Category 3” nuclear facilities from DNFSB oversight. Those facilities include LANL’s Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building, known as RLUOB, or the Rad Lab, which was recently approved to go from 38.6 grams of “plutonium equivalent material” to 400 grams.
The order also sets out that the DOE can deny the DNFSB access to information that is “pre-decisional or otherwise privileged” and when the person asking for the information “does not need such access in connection with his or her duties.”
And it establishes various protocols for communications with the safety board to ensure the DOE “speaks with one voice.”
Whereas the DNFSB takes the ax to bureaucracy, for better or worse, the DOE order appears to embrace the hoops and obstacles of “layers” of bureaucracy.
All safety board requests for information and access must be referred to an appropriate DOE liaison, and the private contractors that manage DOE sites – as is the case at LANL – can respond to the DNFSB only when formally tasked to do so by a DOE manager.
A slideshow summary of the order insists that it “does not hinder cooperation with the Board” or prevent DNFSB staff “from accomplishing their safety oversight responsibilities.”
The DNFSB is holding a hearing on the DOE order next week, so some of these ideas may be fleshed out or clarified then.
Pit production is coming
All of this fuss about whether the DNFSB is too fat or too intrusive or too burdensome comes as the nuclear weapons complex, and specifically the Los Alamos lab, is tasked with ramping up production of the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons, called “pits,” to 80 a year by 2030. Thousands of pits were made during the Cold War, but none has been produced since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 for submarine missiles.
A big problem for the public in all this is that, really, no one tells us anything. That’s the way it goes with a lot of the federal government, especially in the sphere of weapons-making.
The Department of Defense wants the DOE to make 80 plutonium pits a year to modernize the U.S. arsenal, while thousands of pits made years ago are in storage. This work will cost (literally) untold billions. Is there any kind of public forum that fleshes out why making more pits is a good idea and why the old pits are unacceptable, and how much it will cost to make new ones? No.
The DFSNB, tasked with protecting the public in matters nuclear, decides to make a major cut in staff. Trimming bureaucracy (but not technical experts needed to assess the country’s nuclear enterprise) may well be a great idea, and having more field inspectors certainly is, but a before-the-fact public discussion would have been appropriate for an agency with such an important task.
And the DOE is imposing a rule that apparently will reduce what the DNFSB can know about plutonium work and restrict how its inspectors get information. At least in this case, the DNFSB is holding a hearing where we may find out more about why the DOE thinks it needs to make changes.
Here’s what the DOE has provided so far when asked about the new order:
“DOE Manual 140.1-1B, Interface with the DNFSB, was issued in 2001 and had not been updated until now. This reform is important to clearly distinguish DOE’s roles and responsibilities for the safe operations of our defense nuclear facilities and sites, from the DNFSB’s mission to provide independent analysis, advice, and recommendations to assist DOE in providing adequate protection of public health and safety at defense nuclear facilities.
“DOE Order 140.1 ensures DOE does not abrogate its safety responsibilities to the DNFSB, and we will continue a strong and productive relationship with the Board and DNFSB staff as a valued external and independent reviewer.”
New Mexico’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, are supportive of LANL and its pit production work, but have also pushed to keep the DNFSB adequately funded for safety work.
In a statement to the Journal, they said:
“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 (as proposed in the DFSNB staff reorganization). 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.”
Yes, nuclear secrets must be kept. But that doesn’t mean the agencies in charge of making weapons or making sure that it’s done in a safe way get a pass on transparency.
If in fact the country is going to have a weaker Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, those behind the changes should own it, and come out and tell us why. If that’s not the goal, then the powers that be should do a better job of letting us all know why we shouldn’t be skeptical.