Report criticizes DOE nuclear safety

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By Roger Snodgrass

In a lengthy report released Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office questioned the effectiveness of the Department of Energy’s nuclear safety program for 205 high-hazard facilities, including the 19 facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In an unusual sign of contention, officials of the Department of Energy responded with 20 pages of formal comments on why they found GAO’s draft report to be “fundamentally flawed” and disagreed with many of its conclusions, prompting GAO to add several more pages of responses to DOE’s detailed comments.

Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, who requested the report issued a joint statement saying, “the report confirmed their concerns about how safety has taken a backseat at DOE because the offices responsible for safety also face competing concerns in the area of productivity.”

The report focuses on the effects of DOE’s decision in 2006 to combine what were separate offices for safety and health and for safety and security performance assurance into a single Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS), with a few left-over functions distributed to other offices.

While on one level a typical act of bureaucratic consolidation, the decision was interpreted by critics as a political decision at the time that sacrificed health and safety in favor of productivity, while proponents argued that it would result in less wasteful paperwork and a more effective system of national security.

GAO’s conclusion, in brief, “is that DOE has structured its independent oversight office, HSS in a way that falls short of meeting our key elements of effective oversight of nuclear safety.”

Specifically, the GAO found that the combined office lacks independence, technical expertise and the ability to perform reviews, while not doing enough to require that findings be addressed, enforced and subject to public access.

In its detailed response, DOE rejected those conclusions, charging that GAO had evaluated HSS in isolation rather than in the context of the overall DOE governance model.

And, among other flaws, that GAO was imposing its own preconceived opinion of the functions of that office, rather than having an open-minded acceptance of the possible validity of other approaches than its own.

The structural change at DOE was fiercely opposed by worker safety proponents and public interest groups in Washington as soon as DOE announced its intention in May 2006.

One campaign organized by the Government Accountability Project at the time included letters from former Environmental Safety and Health Assistant Secretaries, professional and labor organizations, and a joint letter signed by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire.

DOE also anticipated and confronted objections from the beginning, declaring that the intent of the restructuring was “not to dismantle safety.”

In releasing the report, Congressmen Dingell and Stupak said they were encouraged by the report to consider finding an external regulator for the department, if it continues to fail to take appropriate measures.