Senators: Suspend rule on nuke safety board access

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U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich

Editor’s note: This letter was sent on Wednesday, Sept. 5, to Rick Perry, secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, by New Mexico U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich. The letter addresses new DOE rule 140.1, which imposes restrictions on how information from DOE sites – such as Los Alamos National Laboratory and other weapons labs – can be provided to the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The rule also would exclude from formal DNFSB oversight many nuclear facilities with lower radiation hazard levels that the DOE, by its own determination, doesn’t consider risks to public safety.

Dear Secretary Perry:

We write in regard to DOE’s new Order 140.1, Interface with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which severely limits the DNFSB’s statutory oversight responsibility to ensure the safety of communities and workers at New Mexico’s two nuclear security labs and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. We believe implementation of Order 140.1 must immediately be suspended while the members of the DNFSB, Congress and the public have time to review and offer constructive feedback on how to maintain and enhance the board’s critical safety role.

Congress established the DNFSB as an independent safety organization in 1988 to address mounting health and safety concerns at DOE nuclear facilities across the country, which are largely unregulated by any other state or federal agency. We believe the board helps DOE fulfill its mission of maintaining a safe, secure and reliable nuclear deterrent.

However, DOE issued the new order on working with the DNFSB on May 14, 2018, with no public notice or announcement in the Federal Register. Tellingly, DOE openly acknowledges it denied the board’s request to review a draft version of Order 140.1.

On August 28, the DNFSB held the first of three public hearings on Order 140.1 where the immediate impacts of the new order were highlighted, including the staff’s recent difficulties accessing information related to three safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory. All four board members spoke in unanimous opposition to the changes, citing fears the order violated the DNFSB’s statutory authority to access important DOE facilities, documents and staff, in addition to diminishing its ability to offer formal safety recommendations directly to DOE. In addition, WIPP would be completely eliminated from the board’s oversight.

We strongly support the mission of the DNFSB and oppose any attempt to weaken the board’s ability to help protect health and safety in our communities. The board’s expertise will be especially valuable as plans for production of plutonium pits are developed and implemented at LANL.

In light of the many concerns about the changes made by Order 140.1, we urge you to suspend the new order to give the members of the board an opportunity to provide comments and feedback, including issues raised by stakeholders at the planned public hearings. DOE should then reissue an order that fully complies with the DNFSB’s legal authority to continue to protect workers and the community. We look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Tom Udall Martin Heinrich

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U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

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