DOE wants too much control. Decision to limit safety board access should be rescinded

The Department of Energy is restricting the information available to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
The Department of Energy is restricting the information available to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. TriCities

Congress got it right when it created the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board 30 years ago, but recent, unnecessary changes by the Department of Energy are stripping away the board’s protective power.

DOE officials decided in May – without public review or comment – to restrict the safety board’s access to information. Nuclear watchdog groups are ramping up their opposition to the change and we are joining them.

The approval of DOE Order 140.1 appears to be a self-serving move by the federal agency, and not in the people’s best interest.

In 1988, lawmakers wanted a way to assure that public health and safety would not be compromised at the nation’s most hazardous nuclear defense sites. That’s why they created the DNFSB in the first place.

The idea that the Department of Energy would regulate itself without any outside, independent oversight was troubling at best – terrifying at worst. Those founding principles still resonate today.

Yet DOE officials have decided to set new limits on the safety board, severely crippling its effectiveness.

As an example, critics say the changes now allow DOE to decide what access to facilities, personnel and information the board and its staff have at Hanford and other DOE sites, and eliminates direct DNFSB contact with DOE contractors.

There is concern the order also allows DOE to deny board requests for draft documents and access to deliberative meetings, such as those held after emergencies.

These new restrictions give DOE too much control over itself, which is exactly what the safety board was set up to prevent.

DNFSB officials have told Energy Secretary Rick Perry that federal law gives the board the authority to determine its access and the extent of its oversight.

Members of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a national network of organizations that focus on nuclear weapons production and waste cleanup issues, wrote a letter to Perry telling him that the order already has created a chilling effect and endangered worker and public health and safety.

At a public hearing in November, Anne White, DOE’s top environmental cleanup official, testified about the order and told the safety board it could continue to get the timely access to information it needs.

But DNFSB Chairman Bruce Hamilton said, “I like what I hear from the Department of Energy on this order. I don’t like what I read in the order.”

A year ago DNFSB Chairman Sean Sullivan tried to demolish the safety board from the inside by suggesting its demise. We called his actions at the time disturbing.

Eventually Sullivan stepped down, but it now looks like another threat to the board is coming from DOE. Understandably, there have been times DOE and contractors have found the safety board’s oversight hypercritical.

But we don’t see any benefit to restricting the board’s access to information, especially since it is charged with independently monitoring the safety at nuclear defense facilities.

DOE Order 140.1 should be rescinded.