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Bill with provisions to protect nuke safety board passes Congress

SANTA FE – A major budget bill with provisions that would stall staff cuts at an embattled independent board that provides safety oversight at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs has passed Congress and is now awaiting signing by President Donald Trump.

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

In New Mexico, the DNFSB provides safety oversight for and public reports on Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Supporters contend that staff cuts and the new DOE rule together would neuter the safety board, which was created by Congress amid concerns about risks at the weapons labs. Board members are presidentially appointed.

A majority of the five-member board recently approved a staff cut from 117 authorized positions to 79, but the changes also increased the number of DNFSB field inspectors from 10 to 18. Bruce Hamilton, the DNFSB’s acting chair, said the organization is merely “right-sizing” by eliminating overlapping layers of staff in Washington, D.C.

But language in the fiscal year 2019 fiscal year Energy and Water Development Appropriations 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 recent letter to Senate leaders, New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, wrote that any staff changes needed to be vetted by Congress to protect safety board’s “important safety mission.”

Another provision inserted by Udall and Heinrich directs DOE to brief Congress within 30 days about its new information-sharing order and expresses Congress’ concerns about the rule’s potential impacts.

The new DOE rule requires all information shared with the safety board 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.”

At a recent hearing in Washington, D.C., the staff of the safety board said the rule, imposed in May, is already causing delays in getting information on safety issues at Los Alamos.

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