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U.S. Department of Energy changed safety rules for nuclear lab – workers excluded from health oversight

Nuclear safety board still wary of DOE changes, BY MARK OSWALD / JOURNAL STAFF WRITER February 23rd, 2019  Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – At the end of a hourslong meeting in Albuquerque on Thursday night, officials from U.S. Department of Energy agencies had failed to persuade an independent nuclear safety board and a contingent of interested New Mexicans that a DOE rules change won’t restrict efforts to keep the state’s national laboratory sites safe.

Bruce Hamilton, a Republican who chairs the presidentially appointed Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said DOE officials had continued to downplay the impact of DOE Order 140.1, which last May placed new limits on the board’s 30-year-old oversight role.

“We have repeatedly heard from DOE representatives that they really don’t mean what they wrote (in the rule) or at least that they really don’t intend to follow what they wrote,” said Hamilton. He said this is a “particularly bizarre argument coming out of the nuclear culture that has set the standard for following the written rules to the letter.”

The new rule says the private contractors that manage facilities like the Los Alamos and Sandia national labs can’t respond to DNFSB information requests without notifying or the approval of a DOE liaison and that the weapons facilities can refuse to provide information that is “pre-decisional” or that the DOE determines on its own is not needed by DNFSB inspectors to do their jobs.

Also, the rule excludes more than 70 percent of weapons complex facilities from DNFSB’s formal safety recommendations that require a response from the DOE.

The definition of “public health and safety” under DNFSB oversight was changed to exclude the safety of workers at nuclear facilities. The safety board’s regular reports posted on the web often focus on whether protocols to protect employees, and not just the public in general, are being followed.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad could be one of the sites most affected, as the underground nuclear waste storage facility’s “hazard category” would fall outside formal DNFSB jurisdiction.

Coincidentally, at Thursday’s meeting at the Albuquerque Convention Center, Don Hancock, of the watchdog Southwest Research and Information Center, broke some news about WIPP. The DOE’s own safety and security assessment wing will investigate WIPP contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC over “industrial hygiene” issues.

DOE’s Office of Enterprise Assessments says on its website that it will probe incidents at WIPP that took place from July through October last year including “multiple overexposures to hazardous chemicals, including carbon tetrachloride, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, as well as a series of heat-stress incidents.”……

Board members said they believed the DOE representatives present were sincere and had good intentions. But they said the issues about the DNFSB’s role under the new rule can’t be left to “personalities.”

Board member Joyce L. Connery said the comments by the NNSA folks at the meeting don’t match up with “the literal words” of the DOE order and that the rule should be suspended and revised. Board members also said the language of the rule isn’t consistent with federal law, including the Atomic Energy Act.

During a long public comment period, Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico went the board members one better and said the rule is “flat-out illegal.” He said that as the Los Alamos lab ramps up the production of plutonium “pits,” the cores of nuclear weapons, and safety lapses are reported by the DNFSB, the Department of Energy wants to “shoot the messenger.” ……..


February 25, 2019 - Posted by | safety, USA

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