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Report: Nuclear safety board is underperforming

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The independent board that provides safety oversight at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs has “recently underperformed in its essential mission,” even as a massive plan to overhaul the country’s nuclear arsenal makes the board’s job “as important today as it has ever been.”

That’s the finding of an organizational assessment of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The board itself commissioned the study by a panel of the National Academy of Public Administration, which found that safety board members don’t operate collaboratively or transparently.

The DNFSB, whose five seats are filled by presidential appointment, was created by Congress three decades ago. It makes regular, public safety reports on the weapons labs, including Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, as well as safety recommendations to the federal Department of Energy, which runs the labs.

The recently released academy report says the volume of public correspondence, reports and recommendations by the safety board to the DOE “has dropped significantly over the past several years, suggesting that there are fewer public safety matters” addressed than in the past.

“In addition, there is an overall opinion, articulated by the DOE, the Board, and other key stakeholders that the quality and strategic importance of board member engagement with the DOE has fallen to an all-time low.”

The report says the board members – there are currently four, with one vacant seat, with three board members serving beyond the expiration dates for their terms – “do not work in a collaborative, cooperative manner.” The problem “has reverberated across the organization, drawing the staff, comprised of highly skilled nuclear safety experts, into disputes.” The board “must set a positive tone,” the report states, adding that a lack of trust “in working relationships among current board members is an important cause of the agency’s substandard operating performance.” The board now has three Democrats and one Republican.

Among the recommendations are establishment of a mission, vision and principles for the DNFSB and a “refresh” of board membership, by urging the White House and Congress to pursue filling the vacant position and replace the three members serving beyond their regular terms.

In October, President Donald Trump announced intent to renominate board chair Bruce Hamilton and to nominate Lisa Vickers, currently a representative for the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, to another seat. No more then three members can belong to the same party.

The academy report also calls for the appointment of an executive director for operations to lead the DNFSB staff, to provide a “single point-of-entry” for the board chair, as well as more engagement by the board with Congress and public interest groups.

The report notes that the DOE recently implemented a controversial rule that requires all information for DNFSB inspectors go through designated DOE liaisons, takes formal board oversight away from numerous facilities including the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad and excludes lab workers from the board’s role of protecting “public health and safety.”

The rule “presents a new and supremely important challenge to a reinvigorated, relevant and robust DNFSB safety oversight,” the academy report states.

The report also cites the board for a lack of transparency, saying its processes may meet the letter of the federal Sunshine Act but not its spirit. The board held only three public business meetings in 2017 and through September of this year and typically uses “notational voting,” an electronic sharing process. Using technical staff as messengers, the board members mark up safety reports without deliberating as a group. The board does release tallies of votes, but “often without greater context or explanation of the considerations that went into each member’s decision.”

The report says that ramped up production of new plutonium “pits,” the cores of nuclear bombs, from none in recent years to at least 80 a year by 2030, including at LANL, “represents a significant expansion of production and the associated safety challenges.”

A spokesman for the DNFSB provided a statement saying the board has approved a series of three public meeting to discuss the academy report and identify “those recommendations the entire Board can support as the most critical and pursuing alignment on a path forward.” The meetings will start in December.