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NM senators use budget bill to protect nuke safety board

SANTA FE – A provision in a major federal budget bill would stall staff cuts at an embattled independent board that provides safety oversight at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

The same bill also requires the U.S. Department of Energy, which runs the labs, to brief Congress on a controversial new DOE rule that restricts on how the labs share information with the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

New Mexico U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, said they had secured measures in the 2019 fiscal year Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill, expected to be approved by Congress soon, to protect the DNFSB “and its important safety mission.”

A majority of the presidentially appointed board, which was created by Congress, recently approved a staff cut from 117 authorized positions to 79. While the number of DNFSB field inspectors would increase from 10 to 18, critics say that in combination with the DOE rule that the budget bill also addresses, the safety board could be gutted. Bruce Hamilton, the DNFSB’s acting chair, has said the organization is merely “right-sizing” by eliminating overlapping layers of staff in Washington, D.C.

Language in the budget bill bars the DNFSB from using use any appropriated funds to carry out the proposed reorganization, unless such a proposal is later specifically authorized by law. In a letter to Senate budget leaders last week, Udall and Heinrick wrote that any staff reorganization needed to be vetted by Congress.

The new DOE rule on providing information and access to the DNFSB, also targeted by the two senators, requires all information to go through designated DOE liasons, takes formal board oversight away from numerous facilities including WIPP and excludes lab workers from the board’s role of protecting “public health and safety.”

The Udall-Heinrich provision directs DOE to brief Congress within 30 days about the information-sharing order and expresses Congress’ concerns about its potential impacts. “Our provisions will help keep the DNFSB a strong and independent watchdog for the safety of New Mexicans and the long-term health of our DOE facilities,” Udall and Heinrich said in a news release.

The DNFSB is also an important source of public information about what goes on at the weapons labs, via regular safety reports that are posted online.