GAO criticizes DOE oversight

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerNovember 22, 2008 

Congress should consider giving authority to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to regulate all or some Department of Energy nuclear facilities if DOE does not improve oversight of safety, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

DOE strongly objected to the report, sending the GAO 21 pages of single-spaced comments pointing out what it said were inaccuracies, faulty premises and flawed recommendations.

The GAO report focused on DOE's program to offer independent safety oversight of its high hazard nuclear programs at Hanford and elsewhere, most recently through the 2-year-old Office of Health Safety and Security, or HSS office.

The office is intended to be independent of program offices responsible for nuclear cleanup work as a way to avoid potential conflicts of interest and help to ensure public confidence in DOE's ability to regulate itself.

The HSS office was formed in 2006 by combining most of the responsibilities of the Office of Environment, Safety and Health and the Office of Safety and Security Performance Assurance. At the time Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the change another step by the Bush administration "to weaken the health and safety protections our workers rely on."

The GAO review questioned whether that HSS office meets requirements the GAO believes are needed for effective independent oversight.

The head of the HSS office is not comparable in rank to the program office heads, the report said. It has no routine presence at DOE field sites after DOE eliminated the site representatives because they were considered duplicative and less effective than program office staff.

The HSS office lacks some technical expertise in nuclear safety review, in part because of vacant positions, but also because DOE transferred some technical experts to program offices, the report said.

The report criticized the HSS office's enforcement actions for not preventing some nuclear safety problems from recurring, saying DOE viewed the HSS office as secondary to the program offices.

The report also criticized the HSS office for restricting public access to nuclear safety information. Restrictions were due to security concerns and to avoid alerting contractors and the program offices to potential enforcement actions, the report said.

"In our view, DOE needs to strengthen HSS as an independent regulator of nuclear safety," the report said. "We believe that increasing HSS's involvement in nuclear safety could increase public confidence that DOE can continue to self-regulate its high-hazard nuclear facilities and decrease the likelihood of a low-probability but high-consequence nuclear accident."

The GAO called for changes, including increased presence at DOE sites, strengthening enforcement actions such as fines to prevent recurring violations and establishing access to unclassified appraisal reports.

If the energy secretary does not act on those recommendations, Congress should consider shifting responsibility to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for either all high-hazard DOE nuclear facilities or just the newly constructed ones, the GAO said. Now the NRC regulates some federal nuclear facilities and all commercial, industrial, academic and medical users of nuclear materials.

As an alternative, DOE could give the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board resources and authority to enforce nuclear safety rules and directives, the report said. However, it noted that the board has not been enthusiastic about that plan.

In the DOE response to the report, it objected to a recommendation that it maintain a presence at DOE sites with nuclear facilities. That would be expensive and redundant, it said.

Maintaining a presence is "an essential component of a nuclear safety oversight organization that is supposed to function independently from the program offices," the GAO countered.

The GAO evaluated HSS's responsibilities in isolation rather than as one element in DOE's approach to safety, said DOE.

"The GAO draft report seems to be predicated on the erroneous premise that DOE program management is inherently ineffective and that all DOE oversight must be performed by HSS," wrote Jeffrey Kupfer, acting deputy energy secretary.

Throughout the report, GAO selectively presented isolated information to support preconceived views and ignored evidence to the contrary, Kupfer said. For instance, the director of HSS is a career professional rather than a political appointee to add important continuity to the office, he said.

"The report appears to have been developed by individuals who have limited expertise in nuclear safety and minimal experience with DOE's approach to nuclear safety," Kupfer said.

The report was sent to Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

The GAO report confirmed their concerns that safety has taken a backseat at DOE because the offices responsible for safety also are responsible for productivity, they said in a statement.

"Without strong independent oversight, self-regulation is bound to fail," Dingell said.

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