Nuclear safety board discusses concerns with DOE

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By Tris DeRoma

An independent safety board has concerns that it may be blocked by a special order from the Department of Energy from inspecting nuclear sites overseen by the DOE. 

The board made its concerns known at a meeting Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The board, called the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is an independent agency created by Congress to inspect and report on DOE activities at its nuclear sites that include the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The board organized the hearing. This was the second hearing of a series of three.

During the hearing, board members Daniel Santos, Joyce Connery, Jessie Roberson and board chairman Bruce Hamilton spent two and a half hours interviewing DOE officials about their concerns that the DOE was trying to limit the access of board inspectors to DOE nuclear sites. 

In his opening statement, Santos voiced his and the board’s concern that the DOE was attempting to limit access through a special order it issued last spring called Order 140.1.

“For the board to be effective and add value in ensuring public health and safety it is paramount that the Secretary of Energy, as regulator and operator of all of the defense nuclear facilities fully cooperate with the board and provide the board with ready access to facilities, personnel, and information that the board considers necessary to carry out its responsibilities,” Santos said. 

Santos also said he was further concerned that the DOE, so far had not directly addressed their concerns about access and other issues.

“Since our last public hearing, on Sept. 17, 2018, the board sent a letter to the Secretary of Energy regarding Order 140.1, where we describe our specific concerns  and express our willingness to collaborate on appropriate requests to better establish the interface between the two federal agencies,” Santos said. “As of today, the board has not received any formal response from the Department of Energy.” 

Fielding questions at the hearing were Anne Marie White, assistant secretary for the DOE Office of Environmental Management, and John Arthur Mulles, manager of the Environmental Management Field Office at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

White assured the board that the DOE order won’t change anything.

“The DOE will continue to cooperate closely with the board and staff and provide complete access to the information needed to carry out the board’s mission consistent with your legislative mandate,” White said. 

Roberson asked Mulles if the order has limited access to the board’s inspectors. 

“Frankly, I’ve not seen a change in our interface with the issuance of any order,” Mulles said. 

Mulles also said their contractors still allow board inspectors the same level of access that existed before Order 140.1 was executed.

Hamilton then asked White what would happen if the board requested information from the Environmental Management office that the board considered necessary, but the office or one of its contractors, did not.

“I would hope we have a discussion about it, and that we would be completely transparent, especially with pre decisional information,” White said.

Language in 140.1 states the DOE can limit the board’s access to information that is “pre-decisional or otherwise privileged.” 

However, White said she “could not imagine a situation where they end up at loggerheads.” 

Another issue the board had with Order 140.1 is language in the order that seemed to take the board’s access to “Hazard Category 3” facilities and facilities that don’t have any safety class controls.

One of those sites would include a LANL building that contains a radiological laboratory, utilities and office space. The facility was recently approved by the DOE 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 previously handled.

Connery cited the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as another example and briefly talked about a February 2014 radiological accident involving a waste barrel shipped from LANL as an example as to why the board needs universal access to all classes and categories of DOE facilities. 

“Those are examples of where it’s important the DOE and the board evaluate the extent of condition and determine valuable lessons that can be applied across the complex,” Connery said.

Roberson questioned White and Mulles about language in the order that exempts board enquires into worker safety issues. Roberson felt that might be interpreted by site officials, workers and contractors to mean that they are not to report worker safety issues to the board.

“No oversight function, including your own can be successful if the people inside do not feel free to raise safety issues they do not believe have bee properly understood, appropriately addressed,” Roberson said. “Now will you ensure that this is not the covertly spoken, silently whispered message received by worked at the your facilities. 

“I don’t see that message being out there,” Mulles said. “When I get something back from the contractor saying we see no impact from implementing this order, to me that tells me there’s not going to be some covert hidden message that’s being provided to the worker at the workplace to not talk to the board staff.

In his closing statement, Santos questioned why there had to be a special order in the first place.

“The message we continue to receive from the department is that there’s no change, so I ask myself, ‘so why issue this order?’” Santos said. “I just can’t reconcile the language of this order with the theme of there’s no change. So, I’m concerned that things will change as people implement this order. I hope I am proven wrong.”

The next hearing will take place in Albuquerque in February 2019.