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Nuclear safety board still wary of DOE changes

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – At the end of a hourslong meeting in Albuquerque on Thursday night, officials from U.S. Department of Energy agencies had failed to persuade an independent nuclear safety board and a contingent of interested New Mexicans that a DOE rules change won’t restrict efforts to keep the state’s national laboratory sites safe.

Bruce Hamilton, a Republican who chairs the presidentially appointed Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said DOE officials had continued to downplay the impact of DOE Order 140.1, which last May placed new limits on the board’s 30-year-old oversight role.

“We have repeatedly heard from DOE representatives that they really don’t mean what they wrote (in the rule) or at least that they really don’t intend to follow what they wrote,” said Hamilton. He said this is a “particularly bizarre argument coming out of the nuclear culture that has set the standard for following the written rules to the letter.”

The new rule says the private contractors that manage facilities like the Los Alamos and Sandia national labs can’t respond to DNFSB information requests without notifying or the approval of a DOE liaison and that the weapons facilities can refuse to provide information that is “pre-decisional” or that the DOE determines on its own is not needed by DNFSB inspectors to do their jobs.

Also, the rule excludes more than 70 percent of weapons complex facilities from DNFSB’s formal safety recommendations that require a response from the DOE.

The definition of “public health and safety” under DNFSB oversight was changed to exclude the safety of workers at nuclear facilities. The safety board’s regular reports posted on the web often focus on whether protocols to protect employees, and not just the public in general, are being followed.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad could be one of the sites most affected, as the underground nuclear waste storage facility’s “hazard category” would fall outside formal DNFSB jurisdiction.

Coincidentally, at Thursday’s meeting at the Albuquerque Convention Center, Don Hancock, of the watchdog Southwest Research and Information Center, broke some news about WIPP. The DOE’s own safety and security assessment wing will investigate WIPP contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC over “industrial hygiene” issues.

DOE’s Office of Enterprise Assessments says on its website that it will probe incidents at WIPP that took place from July through October last year including “multiple overexposures to hazardous chemicals, including carbon tetrachloride, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, as well as a series of heat-stress incidents.”

Effect on board’s oversight?

Those who spoke from the DOE side Thursday night included leaders of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s field offices for Los Alamos and Sandia. They downplayed the idea that the new rule means major changes and that they expected personnel at the labs to continue to cooperate with the safety board. And the board’s own technical director said the rule’s impact on the DNFSB’s mission so far has been negligible.

Steve Goodrum, of the Los Alamos field office, said he didn’t foresee any fundamental change in the relationship between nuclear facility managers and the safety board.

Board members said they believed the DOE representatives present were sincere and had good intentions. But they said the issues about the DNFSB’s role under the new rule can’t be left to “personalities.”

Board member Joyce L. Connery said the comments by the NNSA folks at the meeting don’t match up with “the literal words” of the DOE order and that the rule should be suspended and revised. Board members also said the language of the rule isn’t consistent with federal law, including the Atomic Energy Act.

During a long public comment period, Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico went the board members one better and said the rule is “flat-out illegal.” He said that as the Los Alamos lab ramps up the production of plutonium “pits,” the cores of nuclear weapons, and safety lapses are reported by the DNFSB, the Department of Energy wants to “shoot the messenger.”

“Don’t let the DOE or NNSA mess with you,” he told the board.

John Heaton, chair of the Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force in Carlsbad, said the group is concerned about the DNFSB’s access to personnel and documents at WIPP under the new rule. “We would hate to lose you,” he told the board. He said recovery from a WIPP accident in 2014 – when a drum of radioactive waste improperly packed at Los Alamos breached and released contamination – will cost $3 billion.

Trish Williams-Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said the board should make it clear to Congress, which created the board, that the board can’t protect energy defense workers under the new rule. “At a minimum,” she said, Congress should expand the safety board’s mandate to explicitly cover worker safety.

The Albuquerque hearing was the safety board’s third on the DOE rule.

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