Nuclear Safety Board Slams Energy Department Plan to Weaken Oversight via ProPublica

The Trump administration defended an order that could be used to withhold information about nuclear facilities from a federal board, but its leader says the action is not consistent with the U.S. Atomic Energy Act.

A new Department of Energy order that could be used to withhold information from a federal nuclear safety board and prevent the board from overseeing worker safety at nuclear facilities appears to violate longstanding provisions in the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, the board’s members said Tuesday.

Members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, both Democrats and Republicans, were united in their criticism of the Energy Department’s order, published in mid-May. It prevents the board from accessing sensitive information, imposes additional legal hurdles on board staff, and mandates that Energy Department officials speak “with one voice” when communicating with the board.

The Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica first reported on the order’s existence in July but the board called for a special hearing, saying its members had no formal input before the document was finalized.


The five-member board, which currently has one vacancy, was formed in 1988 near the close of the Cold War, as the public and Congress began to question the lack of accountability at the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies. Since the end of the Manhattan Project, the agencies had made their own rules and been largely self-regulating. Negligent safety practices contributed to cancer and other illnesses in nuclear workers exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals without proper protections, studies have shown.

Under the law, the board was granted wide access to information in order to make nuclear safety recommendations and add a layer of accountability and transparency to the Energy Department.


Board members said the new order, which prevents board staff from speaking with officials at nuclear facilities without the express permission of energy officials, could stop them from getting time-sensitive information, particularly in an emergency. Under the guidelines, the board could be excluded from fact-finding meetings that occur after accidents. Board staff have previously sat in on such meetings to understand why issues occur, if problems are part of a pattern, and if lab contractors are following their own rules to correct mistakes.

The order could also cut the number of buildings subject to the board’s jurisdiction by 71 percent, removing certain lower-level facilities that handle highly dangerous chemical and nuclear materials but don’t present a risk to the public. An official from the nuclear security administration said board members would still have some access to the lower-level facilities. Among the facilities that would no longer be subject to board oversight is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico, according to the board’s technical staff.


But board members said this limitation is unacceptable. Half of the board’s 41 technical reports to date have explicitly dealt with worker safety. In 2012, for example, the board recommended that the Energy secretary decontaminate a building at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to prevent more than 1,000 workers from being exposed to radiation thousands of times beyond recommended annual limits if a fire were to occur there. This problem has still not been resolved to the board’s satisfaction.

Such recommendations could now be considered beyond the board’s scope.

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