Removal of ‘redundant’ nuclear safety board proposed

Panel that conducts safety reviews at LANL under threat from one of its own members


Efforts have been underway to defund and dismantle an independent board charged with overseeing safety and security at nuclear weapons sites, and much of that work has been spearheaded by the board's own Republican chairman, according to an investigative report released last week.

One Taos member of a Los Alamos National Laboratory community advisory board blasts that proposal. 

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a five-person panel appointed by the U.S. president, has been charged for three decades with conducting independent safety reviews at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other nuclear sites, as well as with advising the U.S. energy secretary and informing Congress about potential health and safety risks to workers and communities, accidents and contamination events at the sites, as well as efforts to remedy problems.

The board's recommendations do not require action by the labs or the Department of Energy, but have led to more intense scrutiny of labs - including Los Alamos, which has had a poor safety record in recent years, with several serious breaches - and more stringent regulations.

In June, Sean Sullivan, a Republican member of the nuclear safety board who was appointed chairman by the Trump administration, proposed in a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget that the board be eliminated. He called it a Cold War legacy that is no longer relevant and said it creates "myriad unnecessary costs for the Department of Energy."

The board duplicates the efforts of the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the Department of Energy that oversees nuclear weapons work, he said.

Getting rid of the board would save the federal government $31 million a year, Sullivan said, and would be in keeping with President Donald Trump's executive order to eliminate "redundant executive branch functions."

Darien Fernandez, a town of Taos council member and local chair of the Democratic Party, pushed back at the idea of trying to save money at the expense of legitimate concerns for safety.

"One need only look at the 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl, Ukraine, or the corruption and environmental damage at Rocky Flats, Colorado, to understand the effects of lax safety oversight. Imagine the impact to Northern New Mexico if a radiation event happened at LANL," said Fernandez, who also serves on the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, a nonprofit that advocates for the surrounding areas and economies dependent on the lab's jobs and taxes.

"How many lost jobs and lives are worth the $31 million that would be saved by dismantling the board? What's the cost of the environmental cleanup that would be required? That $31 million that would be saved pales in comparison. I say give that board an additional $31 million. Help them to help keep us safe," Fernandez said.

Fernandez has urged the coalition to "take an official position opposing this effort by a Trump appointee to dismantle the board he serves on and should be working to improve," he said.

Sullivan's letter was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news agency based in Washington, D.C. The center's report this week highlights an internal power struggle between safety board members, as well as pushback from national labs - many of which see the board's presence at their sites as "invasive."

Questions about the future of the board's independent oversight also arose this summer, when the National Nuclear Security Administration proposed creating a position for an employee who would work for both the agency and the board and would lobby Congress for funding that "supports the budget and policy interests of the NNSA's weapons activities and defense nuclear nonproliferation programs."

Safety board members Jessie Roberson and Daniel Santos told the board's leadership in a letter that such a role would diminish the board's mission by "unnecessarily raising doubts about the objectivity and independence of the work."

The efforts to disband the board and undermine its independence come amid increasing questions about the safety culture at a number of national labs, but particularly at Los Alamos.

In the past year, Los Alamos has faced a federal investigation for improperly shipping nuclear materials out of state and violated nuclear safety protocol in August at its plutonium facility. A small fire there in April also caused one worker to suffer second-degree burns.

Most of these issues were made public by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which posts its weekly reports online.

Earlier this year, the safety board voiced concerns to Congress about Los Alamos' ability to handle nuclear materials and raised questions about whether the lab's nuclear facilities are structurally sound.

In early June, the board held a hearing in Santa Fe to question lab and Department of Energy officials about whether the lab would be prepared to manage increasing quantities of nuclear material as ramped-up production of plutonium pits - the grapefruit-sized triggers inside nuclear bombs - begins as part of a plan to modernize the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Given the protracted and ongoing safety issues at Los Alamos, a number of safety board members and lawmakers have objected to any relaxed oversight at the lab.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told the Center for Public Integrity that repeated safety issues, "including the two [labs] in New Mexico, are among the reasons for strengthening - not eliminating - the outside oversight board.

"These incidents have demonstrated that there is a need for a strong watchdog that does not have a direct financial or political stake in the success of the labs," Udall added.

Safety board member Roberson responded to Sullivan's proposal in a letter to the chairman, the Center for Public Integrity found, saying, "I strongly reject your proposal that the agency should be abolished as characterized."

Roberson outlined the necessity of the board in ensuring and enhancing safety at nuclear facilities and in providing the public with assurance that weapons sites will not endanger their communities.

"The mission of the board is still relevant today," she said, "if not more so."

The report on the Center for Public Integrity's investigation into efforts to eliminate and undermine the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board can be read at bit.ly/2x8H1sw.

This story was first published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News. Reporter Cody Hooks contributed to this story.