The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has been an independent overseer of nuclear facilities throughout the country — including the Hanford Site — for nearly three decades.
But now there is a disturbing effort from inside the organization to dismantle it, or at the very least, significantly reduce its funding and influence.
DNFSB Chairman Sean Sullivan wrote a letter in June to the federal Office of Management and Budget, encouraging the elimination of the safety board by amending the Atomic Energy Act.
That Sullivan was named chairman of the DNFSB by President Donald Trump in January — and is now embracing the demise of an organization he leads — makes the recommendation particularly troubling.
Rick Schapira, a former deputy general counsel for the safety board, said in a recent story by the Seattle Times: “It’s a pretty shocking letter. One could construe from it that he was appointed to undo the board.”
If that is the case (and that perception will be difficult to shake), then the board is now overly politicized, and that’s not what it should be.
If there are improvements that can be made to how the DNFSB operates, than they should be put in place. But the organization itself should not be abolished, or crippled to the point of being ineffective.
Even though Trump has made an executive order requiring agencies to come up with a plan to reorganize and reduce the number of federal workers, Sullivan’s easy willingness to let the DNFSB go is unsettling.
He called the nuclear safety board a “relic of the Cold War-era defense establishment” and said, “Although the board may have been helpful in providing adequate protection of public health and safety during its early years, that value today is provided only on the margins, while in the meantime the board’s independence permits the board to create myriad unnecessary costs for the Department of Energy.”
It is true DOE officials and contractors at times have found the nuclear safety board’s oversight exasperating and overcritical.
But the reason the safety board was created by Congress in 1988 was because lawmakers wanted to end DOE’s self-regulation, and protect against the proverbial “fox guarding the henhouse” and “Dracula guarding the blood bank.”
The DNFSB was established as an independent, government watchdog organization within the executive branch. Its founding purpose was to give the public more assurance that DOE’s defense nuclear facilities were constructed, operated and dismantled safely.
That objective is still relevant today.
Sullivan’s letter was made public this fall through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news agency based in Washington, D.C.
In the letter, he acknowledges he is speaking for himself, and not on behalf of other members of the DNFSB.
The board is made up of five members who are deemed experts in the field of nuclear safety, and who serve five-year terms. They are appointed by the president, and only three members of the same political party are allowed to serve at the same time.
Sullivan, a retired Navy submarine officer and Republican attorney, was appointed in 2012 by Former President Barack Obama before Trump made him chairman this year.
There are three other board members, all Democrats, who have denounced Sullivan’s position, and the other Republican board member has declined to comment, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
The safety board has no power to force DOE to take specific actions, but its reports are public and DOE officials must reply to concerns that are raised.
Sullivan said in his letter that eliminating the board and its staff would save the federal government $31 million a year, which is the motivating factor in his recommendation.
While he writes that DOE has “established its own internal oversight capabilities,” he also notes the safety board is the “only agency providing independent analysis, advice, and recommendations.”
And that is reason enough to keep it going.
Nuclear safety issues are still as frightening now as they were some 30 years ago. The board’s independent mission must be protected and allowed to continue.