SANTA FE — After a hearing of more than three hours Tuesday, members of the independent board that provides safety oversight at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs were not persuaded that a new U.S. Department of Energy rule won’t limit the board’s access to information and restrict its role in making the labs safer.
A member of the staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said the May order will cut by 72 percent the number of weapons complex facilities where the board could make formal safety recommendations that require a response from the DOE.
Chris Roscetti, the board’s technical director, singled out the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad as a site that would be most affected. The rule allows the DOE “to prevent board oversight” at WIPP, the nation’s only facility for storage of nuclear waste, said Roscetti.
“They won’t necessarily limit our access, but they will limit their response,” said DNFSB board member Joyce L. Connery, “and our effectiveness is only as good as the department’s response to our advice.”
Roscetti said the new rule on DOE’s “interface” with the safety board is already having an impact at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The rule, among other things, says the private contractors that manage facilities like LANL can’t respond to DNFSB information requests without notifying or the approval of a DOE liaison and that labs can refuse to provide information that is “pre-decisional” or that the DOE considers as not needed by DNFSB staffers to do their jobs.
Since May, Roscetti said, the board’s staff has been unable to get documents needed to determine the veracity of a LANL worker’s safety complaint and those related to “safety challenges” in transitioning to shift work at LANL’s plutonium facility.
Multiple shifts are being considered at the facility to ramp up production of the plutonium cores of nuclear bombs known as “pits.” Board members said that with the pit work and other new missions, aging infrastructure and a changing workforce, now is not the time to be watering down safety oversight.
“This seems to be the perfect storm for accidents to happen, and this is a time where we should be doubling down on our efforts on nuclear safety,” Connery said.
DOE officials who testified at Tuesday’s hearing, held in Washington, D.C., and streamed online, said the new rule was needed to correct “blurred” responsibilities between the DOE and the safety board and to ensure that DOE takes full ownership of nuclear safety.
When it comes to safety at DOE sites, “the buck stops squarely at our door,” said Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. DOE officials maintained the new rule doesn’t represent a significant change in how the department interacts with or provides access to the board and said DOE will continue to cooperate with the board.
DOE representatives rejected the idea of asking Congress for clarification of legal issues or suspending implementation of the rule. Safety board members said the new rule “dilutes” the language of federal law that says the DNFSB can seek information that it considers necessary to carry out its responsibilities.
The safety board was created by Congress in 1988. In addition to its oversight role, it serves as a key source of public information about safety issues at the national labs through regular site reports and sometimes with more detailed findings and recommendations.
A major point of contention Tuesday was language in the new rule that limits formal DNFSB oversight to issues of “public health and safety,” defined as only health and safety beyond nuclear facility boundaries.
That means lab worker safety is now beyond the board’s formal oversight role.
Roscetti and DNFSB board members said worker safety is one of the “layers” that protects safety of the general public. Roscetti said 21 of 41 technical reports made by the safety board have dealt exclusively with worker safety.
Matthew Moury, a DOE associate under secretary, said the change was intended to better define roles. He said the DNFSB could still communicate to the department about worker safety but not with formal recommendation.
“You have other tools,” he said.
Board member Connery said, “I’d like to know what problem this order solves.”
Later, she said, “We are but a small technical organization with a few dozen technical staff members, and the defense nuclear complex has tens of thousands of workers. I don’t know why we strike fear into the heart of the department and I don’t understand why they consider us to be onerous.”
The DNFNB is cutting its total positions to 79 under a reorganization plan.
Acting board chair Bruce Hamilton, the only Republican on the five-seat board, which has a vacancy at the moment, said the new rule comes after “simmering” efforts within the department over more than a decade and under three presidents.
He said the only advance notice to the board of the new rule’s language was an email to him a week before it was implemented.