A proposal by its Chairman Sean Sullivan to eliminate the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) is being opposed by the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, according to Executive Director Andrea Romero.
In a June 29 letter to the Office of Management and Budget, Sullivan proposed the elimination of the DNFSB calling it “a relic of the Cold War era defense establishment. While admitting that the DNFSB is the only agency providing independent advice, analysis and recommendations, Sullivan claimed that the Department of Energy has developed its own oversight capabilities and that elimination of the DNFSB would save some $31 million in direct costs and end “unmeasured costs to DOE from responding to Board activities”.
Sullivan’s letter admitted that complete elimination of the DFNSB might be susceptible to “political blowback”. He said the savings are small, likely raising questions from “those who assume without evidence that an added layer of independent nuclear safety oversight is de facto worth the cost”.
A secondary proposal by Sullivan suggested reducing staffing in Washington, D.C., which he called “enlarged and ineffective” and placing more personnel in the field where they could increase oversight, improve practical knowledge and “reduce the bureaucratic inertia which has gradually built up within the headquarters staff”.
Ironically, a FY2017 Performance and Accountability Report send to Congress by the DNFSB Nov. 15 and signed by Chairman Sullivan states that the DNFSB is continuing its focus on DOE’s ability to effectively respond to an emergency at one of its defense nuclear facilities. It says the agency needs to continue its oversight of operations throughout the DOE defense nuclear complex to ensure operations are conducted safely.
“These operations include assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons, fabrication of plutonium pits and weapon secondaries, production and recycling of tritium, criticality experiments, subcritical experiments, and a host of maintenance and other activities to address the radioactive legacy of more than 70 years of these operations,” the report states. “Continued effective oversight of the conduct of operations is the only way the Board may ascertain whether operations are being conducted with the appropriate formality, identify potential safety problems promptly, and advise the Secretary of Energy in order to ensure adequate protection of public and worker safety at DOE defense nuclear facilities.”
The report states that many DOE facilities are degraded, and the transition to new facilities will take decades, adding that the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other facilities at Y-12 such as the 9212 Complex, 9204-2E, and the 9215 Complex are “of particular concern because of their deficient structures and advanced age”.
“The Board will need to evaluate the rigor and maintenance of a robust safety posture in such facilities and inform the Secretary of potential threats to public health and safety,” the report states.
On Nov. 13, the Energy Communities Alliance wrote to Sullivan saying it is believes it is critical that an independent review board exists separate from DOE.
“Congress created the DNFSB due to a significant number of high profile problems associated with DOE’s management of the nuclear weapons program which could potentially cause real health and safety issues in our communities,” the letter stated. “While DOE has established internal review procedures, the presence of the DNFSB as an independent, non-duplicative body adds needed trust to communities with high hazard and nuclear operations nearby.”
The letter said that although the DNFSB doesn’t possess regulatory authority, it acts as a very important third party that provides additional information on the actual risks and actions needed to be taken to mitigate the risk to the communities that would be most impacted by a catastrophic nuclear incident.
Romero says the Coalition is in full agreement with the stance of ECA that the DNFSB must not be eliminated in order to continue to fully address local concerns.
“The DNFSB plays a critical role in providing independent nuclear safety reviews on DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) activities. As host communities to LANL, Northern New Mexico endures a number of challenges and impacts due to the Lab’s national security missions,” she said. “Over the years, several health and safety concerns have arisen that required independent oversight, separate from DOE and NNSA. The DNFSB has contributed meaningfully to safety issues at LANL and is greatly needed for the future well-being of New Mexico communities.”
Romero says the Coalition recognizes that DNFSB needs to make improvements in several key areas such as communicating directly with local governments and communities prior to proposing actions, particularly those that could impact the progress of critical clean-up and safety missions. She said the Coalition believes greater collaboration is needed with DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration offices, ensuring budgets, project timeline, cost-benefit, and risk reduction analysis accompany all DNFSB recommendations.
“The Regional Coalition views the DNFSB as a critical practitioner in maintaining full transparency of information on NNSA issues. Along with the ECA, the Coalition wholly supports the continuation and improvement of DNFSB to become a more effective and beneficial public mechanism for both the DOE nuclear facilities complex and its host communities,” Romero said.