US Government Accountabily Office criticizes DOE oversight at high risk US nuke facilities

Publish date: November 24, 2008

US 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.

The 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 Washington State-based Tricity Herald Reported.

The GAO report focused on the DOE’s programme 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 programme offices responsible for nuclear cleanup work as a way to avoid potential conflicts of interest and help to ensure public confidence in the  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.

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

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.