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Hearing on special DOE order to be held Wednesday

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By Tris DeRoma

A hearing to collect public opinion on a plan by the Department of Energy to regulate its relationship with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the board that oversees its nuclear activities, is set for Wednesday.

The hearing will be held from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. eastern time and will be live via the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board website at DNFSB.gov. 

This spring, the DOE issued Order 140.1, an order that critics say reduces the DNSFB’s monitoring  and reporting role over the DOE’s nuclear facilities, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

A big component of what the the board does is issue weekly inspection reports on all of the DOE’s nuclear sites, including the lab. While most of the reports are mundane, occasionally inspectors will document accidents that happen at the laboratory which then make regional and sometimes national news. 

The order states the DOE can limit the board's inspectors’ access to information that is “predecisional or otherwise privileged.”

The order also removes a certain category of sites from the board's inspections, known as “Hazard Category 3” sites. One of those sites would include a building within the lab that contains a radiological laboratory, utilites and office building. The bilding was recently approved for a design upgrade that would enable it to process up to 400 grams of plutonium, 11 times more than the 38 grams the facility handled. 

The Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based nuclear and environmental safety organization, said the order would essentially knock out a majority of DOE sites involved in nuclear activity. 

“Under the terms of the order, the DNFSB is rendered completely powerless to protect worker safety and health at most DOE nuclear facilities (upon information and belief, about 60 percent of DOE nuclear facilities are HC-3 facilities),” a statement by the group’s executive director, Greg Mello said. “For these HC-3 facilities, board (DNSFB) concerns ‘about worker and co-located worker protection should be taken under consideration as appropriate…’ that is, neither DOE nor its contractors are under any obligation to actually respond to DNFSB concerns if such concerns could even be formulated, given the lack of access codified in this order.” 

The order also appears to want to establish a multilayered approval system on the DOE side for the board's inspector reports before the reports can be released. 

DOE officials said in the order that the goal of Order 140.1 is to strengthen the DOE’s hierarchy and accountability structure in order to better manage information related to the DOE’s activities.

“The purpose of this order is to emphasize line management accountability and establish clear requirements and responsibilities when working with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board,” a statement in the order read.

One directive in the order reads: “Ensure that requests made to DOE contractors will only respond to DNFSB requests when formally tasked to do so by an authorized departmental site liaison.”

However, a fact sheet issued by the DOE in May on Order 140.1 also said, “this order does not hinder cooperation with the board or to prevent them from accomplishing their safety oversight responsibilities.”

Many groups are expected to speak at the hearing for and against the proposal.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) criticized the  order, and in August, appealed to the chairman (Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and the ranking member (Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) of the Energy and Water Subcommittee to suspend Order 140.1 until public hearings could be held.

The Energy and Water Subcommittee is part of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“We would also like to request that you include language in the final bill that suspends DOE Order 140.1, which on its face appears to restrict the amount of information the board can access for its safety oversight work at DOE sites,” the senators said in the letter. 

The senators also noted that the DNFSB’s own hearing on the order, the board unanimously voted against it, saying, “Citing fears that it could curtail the DNFSB’s ability to get access to important DOE facilities, documents and staff, in addition to diminishing its ability to offer formal safety recommendations to the Secretary of Energy.” 

The board plans to hold another hearing in Albuquerque in February 2019.