Chairman of nuclear safety board secretly proposes to abolish it via USA Today

The chairman of a panel charged with protecting workers at nuclear weapons facilities as well as nearby communities has told the White House he favors downsizing or abolishing the group, despite recent radiation and workplace safety problems that injured or endangered people at the sites it helps oversee.

Sean Sullivan, a Republican appointee and former Navy submarine officer, told the director of the Office of Management and Budget in a private letter that closing or shrinking the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board he chairs is consistent with President Trump’s ambition to cut the size of the federal workforce, according to a copy of Sullivan’s letter. It was written in June and obtained recently by the Center for Public Integrity.

The five-member Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, chartered by Congress in 1988, has a staff of 120, and its warnings have helped persuade the federal government to impose tighter safety rules and regulations at most of the eight nuclear weapons sites – employing more than 40,000 workers – where nuclear weapons and their parts are produced or stored.

In recent years, the nuclear weapons complex has repeatedly experienced alarming safety problems, including the mishandling of plutonium, a radioactive explosive; the mis-shipment of hazardous materials, including nuclear explosive materials;  and the contamination of work areas and scientists by radioactive particles—shortcomings detailed in a recent Center for Public Integrity investigation.


Funding for the board’s operation in fiscal 2018 remains in versions of the defense funding bill, and in an effort to block Sullivan’s request, a Senate Democrat has added language to his chamber’s version that would bar the board’s elimination. But the bill is still being discussed between the Senate and House.

Eliminating the safety board entirely would annually save the government about $31 million a year in direct costs, while an alternative proposal to trim and disperse its personnel would save $7.2 million, Sullivan said in his June 29 letter to OMB director Mick Mulvaney, a former South Carolina Congressman. The larger sum amounts to less than a hundred-thousandth of Trump’s proposed $4.1 trillion federal budget for 2018.

At the Uranium Processing Facility under construction at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, for example, the board’s technical staff identified shortcuts contractors had taken that elevate the risk of a fire or a runaway nuclear chain reaction by eliminating protective barriers that had once been part of the building plan.
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