SANTA FE, N.M. — Nuclear safety watchdog groups around the country are calling on the Department of Energy to rescind an order they fear will limit the board tasked with overseeing operations at some of the nation’s nuclear facilities and ultimately negatively affect safety at such facilities.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) has itself raised concerns over Order 140.1, “Interface with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board,” put into place by the DOE in April.
The board held a second public hearing on the order in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 28.
The DNFSB was created by Congress in 1988 to provide oversight and provide information to the public on safety issues at some DOE nuclear facilities.
“We are deeply concerned that Order 140.1 constrains crucial oversight activities of the DNFSB and thereby endangers public health and worker safety,” said Kathy Crandall Robinson of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability during the late-November hearing.
Chief among the concerns with the order, which the DOE says is aimed at “clarifying” the roles of the department and DNFSB, is language that limits formal DNFSB oversight to issues of public safety as those beyond facility boundaries.
The order, Robinson said, “threatens to send us on a glide path back to a careless era as if this were a time when safety concerns and dangers at nuclear weapons facilities are shrinking.”
“They are not,” she added, citing plans to ramp up plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Lydia Dennett of the non-partisan Project on Government Oversight expressed concerns over the reasoning behind the order’s implementation, namely that the decision was possibly driven by government contractors.
“This policy makes it easier for contractors to hide any information they don’t want to come to light,” she said.
The order stipulates the DNFSB may not talk to contractor employees without getting authorization from management and DOE, according to the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.
The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability represents more than 30 organizations located near DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration sites around the country, including the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research Information Center.
Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center pointed out in a news release sent by the alliance a 2011 DNFSB report that identified fire hazards at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeast New Mexico.
Three years later, an underground fire caused the temporary closure of the facility.