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Efforts underway to remove ‘redundant’ nuclear safety board via Santa Fe/New Mexican

Efforts have been underway to defund and dismantle an independent board charged with overseeing safety and security at nuclear weapons sites, and much of that work has been spearheaded by the board’s own Republican chairman, according to an investigative report released Thursday.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a five-person panel appointed by the U.S. president, has been charged for three decades with conducting independent safety reviews at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other nuclear sites, as well as with advising the U.S. energy secretary and informing Congress about potential health and safety risks to workers and communities, accidents and contamination events at the sites, and efforts to remedy problems.

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In June, Sean Sullivan, a Republican member of the nuclear safety board who was appointed chairman by the Trump administration, proposed in a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget that the board be eliminated. He called it a Cold War legacy that is no longer relevant and said it creates “myriad unnecessary costs for the Department of Energy.”

The board duplicates the efforts of the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the Energy Department that oversees nuclear weapons work, he said.

Getting rid of the board would save the federal government $31 million a year, Sullivan said, and would be in keeping with President Donald Trump’s executive order to eliminate “redundant executive branch functions.”

Sullivan’s letter was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news agency based in Washington, D.C. The center’s report this week highlights an internal power struggle between safety board members, as well as pushback from national labs — many of which see the board’s presence at their sites as “invasive.”

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In the past year, Los Alamos has faced a federal investigation for improperly shipping nuclear materials out of state and violated nuclear safety protocol in August at its plutonium facility. A small fire there in April also caused one worker to suffer second-degree burns.

Most of these issues were made public by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which posts its weekly reports online.

Earlier this year, the safety board voiced concerns to Congress about Los Alamos’ ability to handle nuclear materials and raised questions about whether the lab’s nuclear facilities are structurally sound.

In early June, the board held a hearing in Santa Fe to question lab and Energy Department officials about whether the lab would be prepared to manage increasing quantities of nuclear material as ramped-up production of plutonium pits — the grapefruit-sized triggers inside nuclear bombs — begins as part of a plan to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Given the protracted and ongoing safety issues at Los Alamos, a number of safety board members and lawmakers have objected to any relaxed oversight at the lab.

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Safety board member Roberson responded to Sullivan’s proposal in a letter to the chairman, the Center for Public Integrity found, saying, “I strongly reject your proposal that the agency should be abolished as characterized.”

Roberson outlined the necessity of the board in ensuring and enhancing safety at nuclear facilities and in providing the public with assurance that weapons sites will not endanger their communities.

“The mission of the Board is still relevant today,” she said, “if not more so.”

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