The Trump administration reins in a nuclear weapons safety watchdog

Acting in an alliance with contractors, it is scaling back the safety group’s authority and responsibility and cutting its technical staff

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 Updated:

August 30: This story has been updated.

A small government safety organization tasked with protecting the workers who construct America’s nuclear arsenal and with preventing radioactive disasters in the communities where they live is under new siege in Washington.

The Trump administration, acting in an open partnership with the profit-making contractors that control the industrial sites where U.S. nuclear bombs are made and stored, has enacted new rules that limit the authority and reach of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, created by Congress in 1988 amid broad public concerns over civil and military nuclear safety lapses.

The administration’s new rules eliminate the board’s authority to oversee workplace protections for roughly 39,000 nuclear workers and also block its unfettered access to nearly three-quarters of the nuclear weapons-related sites that it can now inspect.

In a separate move, the board’s new acting Republican chairman has proposed to put more inspectors in the field but to cut its overall staff by nearly a third, including letting some of its supporting technical experts in Washington go. The board already has one of the smallest oversight staffs of any federal agency.

The twin assaults on the operations and authority of the safety board come just as the Energy Department, acting at President Trump’s direction, is embarking on the most aggressive era of nuclear weapons production since the Cold War. Trump has called for one new nuclear bomb to be produced immediately, and for the production of another new bomb to be studied.

The moves against the board also come at the end of a three-year hiatus in the U.S. production of plutonium cores for nuclear warheads, forced in part by the five-member board’s worries about workplace conditions that might cause a cataclysmic safety accident at one of the key U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, located in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The production and maintenance of such weapons is financed by the Department of Energy, and its deputy secretary, Dan Brouillette, a former Ford Motor Company executive and Republican congressional staff member, has testified that the new directive “does not hinder” the board’s work.

But one of the board’s Democratic members, Joyce Connery, has said “this seems to be the perfect storm for accidents to happen, and this is a time where we should be doubling down on our efforts on nuclear safety.”

Even the board’s acting Republican chair, former Navy officer Bruce Hamilton, who proposed Aug. 13 to trim the board’s overall staff by 32 percent, to 79 from 117, has said the DOE’s directive goes too far. It is, he said at a special board hearing about it on August 28, “a subtle attempt to say that the board doesn’t get to decide” when its intervention in a potential nuclear weapons safety problem is necessary.

Members of the board’s technical staff have already complained that under the new DOE directive, they have been blocked from gaining access to safety data at key nuclear facilities that they could regularly review in the past, according to testimony at the hearing by Chris Roscetti, the board’s technical director.

Roscetti said that four recent requests by the board for safety information had gone unanswered, including one “needed to determine the veracity of a worker complaint related to safety” at Los Alamos.

A second request, for Los Alamos documents related to safety challenges associated with adding a worker shift to meet the Trump administration’s call for increasing the production of plutonium cores for nuclear warheads, also has gone unanswered, he said. And a third request for technical information about the laboratory’s “redefinition” of what constitutes a high explosive violent reaction has similarly been spurned.

Roscetti also said the board has been unable to get access to documents that detail internal discussions about “nuclear explosive safety” at the government’s Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas, where warheads are assembled and taken apart by specially-trained workers in hardened rooms. The Energy Department and the labs declined to comment about his assertions.

The DOE directive was developed without input from the safety board, unions representing contractor employees at the weapons sites, and communities near those sites, according to testimony at the hearing by Matthew Moury, the Energy Department’s associate undersecretary responsible for worker and public safety. When asked by a board member if contractors were consulted, he said he could not recall.

But Craig Leasure, principal associate director for business and operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is run by a consortium of private contractors, testified before a panel of state lawmakers in New Mexico on Aug. 15 that “I helped with the order as one of the people on the team.”

The office of the Energy Department’s Public Affairs Director Robert Haus confirmed after the hearing concluded that contractors participated fully in the crafting of the DOE order that restricts the safety board’s interactions. “This was a collaborative effort involving DOE Headquarters and field staff, as well as contractors operating DOE National Laboratories,” the office said in an emailed response to the Center for Public Integrity’s questions without any official’s name attached to it. The order, the email stated, “ensures DOE does not abrogate its safety responsibilities to the DNFSB.”

(Update, Aug. 30, 11:28 a.m.: The directive has evoked protests from Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats representing New Mexico, where the safety board has the authority to inspect three nuclear sites. They wrote a letter to congressional appropriators on Aug. 29 urging them to add language to the Energy Department's budget for next year demanding a halt both the DOE’s plan to limit safety board access, and Hamilton’s proposal to cut safety board staff.

“We rely on the DNFSB for steadfast and unbiased investigative power to ensure that the Department of Energy facilities in our state are meeting the highest safety standards,” the senators wrote, according to a copy.) 

Seth Kirshenberg, who heads an alliance of communities near the principal weapons production sites, said at the hearing however that his group disagrees with the order and that it was a mistake for Washington to have excluded the communities from its decision making. He said the DOE directive should be suspended because information provided by board about safety risks “is critical to us.”  

“When it comes to safety, too often we get lip service from DOE. … Citizens have no way of checking up on them,” said Ralph Hutchison of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, part of a nationwide network of nongovernmental organizations that closely monitors the nuclear weapons work. “We rely on the Safety Board. Their reports provide a window into the operations at sites across the country. Too often, they tell us of problems and incidents that pose risks to workers and potentially to the public.”

Contractors and the DOE unit directly responsible for bomb-related work, known as the National Nuclear Security Administration, have cooperated before now to try to limit the safety board’s impact. In October 2017, NNSA Administrator Frank Klotz, who has since retired, urged the safety board to stop publishing inspectors’ weekly and monthly reports from the nuclear sites where they were assigned. Klotz cited the embarrassment that news reports had caused contractors as one of the reasons for his request. The board briefly entertained accommodating Klotz, but abandoned the possibility before it ever reached a formal vote.

The board can’t issue fines, but it can make formal safety recommendations to the energy secretary, who is not required to accept them. He is supposed to respond publicly, however. Historically, the safety board has provided its technical analysis in the early stages of DOE and NNSA deliberations, but under the new directive, the board no longer has access to meetings and records, including data, that DOE deems “predecisional.”

The directive also states that the board has authority to make recommendations only on safety conditions with potential consequences for the general public, outside of the nuclear production facilities – a provision that effectively blocks its oversight of the safety of contractor employees. And it blocks routine inspections by the board of facilities that DOE deems less dangerous than others.

A safety board staff analysis, described at the hearing, showed that that the restriction on inspections would render off-limits 71 percent of all buildings currently routinely open to inspection by the safety board’s staff. These would include DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the New Mexico installation that serves as the nation’s only permanent repository for waste created in the making of nuclear weapons. It is still recovering from a series of accidents in February 2014 that included a radiation leak – triggered by a mishandled and mislabeled drum of waste that originated at Los Alamos – exposing 21 workers to what the Energy Department has deemed minor amounts of radiation. The cost of its recovery is expected to exceed $1 billion, with some estimates pushing $2 billion.

When safety board members asked about this restriction at the hearing, they got a mixed reply. William “Ike” White, the NNSA chief of staff, said that if safety board inspectors want access to the less dangerous facilities – known internally as Category 3 -- they’ll get it. But Moury said that if in the Energy Department’s judgment “there is no impact on public safety and you’re requesting access … I think that’s a topic that requires discussion” before access is provided.

“The buck stops with us on protecting those [contractor] employees,” Moury testified.

But a Center for Public Integrity analysis of enforcement actions against contractors by the Energy Department between 2006 and 2016 showed the department had completely waived or dramatically reduced 19 out of 21 major fines for safety breaches and other workplace violations. The department’s forgiving nature eliminated about 46 percent – $3.3 million – of the $7.3 million in total fines contractors could have faced over that period. The Department of Energy occupies dual roles that at times conflict, as the taskmaster responsible for improving productivity by its contractors and the regulator responsible for protecting workers and the public from health risks associated with the nuclear weapon sites.

The safety board reorganization proposed by Hamilton is strikingly similar to an idea his predecessor as chair, Sean Sullivan, pitched to the fledgling Trump administration last year. In fact, the reduction in technical staff and increase in field inspectors was listed as an alternative to Sullivan’s primary proposal in his letter to the Trump budget office. His top choice was outright elimination of the board that he chaired.

Two more safety board hearings are planned to discuss the Department of Energy’s changes to the way it interacts with the safety board. The dates and times are yet to be announced.

“We are but a small technical organization with a few dozen technical staff members, and the defense nuclear complex has tens of thousands of workers,” safety board member Connery said. “I don’t know why we strike fear in the heart of the department, and I don’t understand why they consider us to be onerous. If it were up to me, I'd double our staff and still consider it inadequate.”

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