As part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to highlight the importance of open government and freedom of information, POGO is releasing a host documents obtained by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Read more about POGO's plans for Sunshine Week here.
Tasked with holding accountable a federal agency or a military branch, an inspector general (IG) has one of the most important jobs in the U.S. government. However, with many IG investigations only accessible through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, much of an IG's work remains unseen, which means taxpayers are often unaware, both of these investigations and of the government wrongdoing they uncover. Through FOIA, we recently obtained IG documents about one such case: a troubling incident involving drunkenness on the job, a mismanaged investigation, and the U.S. agency that oversees nuclear power.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) IG documents obtained by POGO outline a 2006 case in which the president of Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS)—a company that is licensed by the NRC to manufacture nuclear fuel for Navy submarines—allegedly “attended a force-on-force exercise under the influence of alcohol.” (A force-on-force exercise is a prescheduled security inspection conducted by the NRC to simulate threats to nuclear facilities.)
According to the IG documents, the case fell in the hands of a local NRC allegation review board, which referred the case back to the licensee—that is, to NFS—for review. As one of the IG documents notes, the NRC specifically “encourages the NRC staff to refer ‘as many allegations as possible’ to licensees,” but also “clearly instructs staff not to refer allegations made against licensee management.” Simply put, the local NRC board should not have handed the investigation back to NFS because the allegation concerned such a high-level official.
Officials from the local NRC board told the IG that, though their decision conflicted with NRC policy, they gave the investigation to the licensee because they believed the incident “was not something NRC could inspect.”
However, the NRC clearly has reason to be interested in inebriation at its licensee facilities. The agency keeps detailed data on licensee compliance with its Fitness-For-Duty (FFD) programs, which require that nuclear facility personnel “perform their tasks in a reliable and trustworthy manner and are not under the influence of any substance, legal or illegal.” The rules specify that personnel can’t drink alcohol while on the job and for five hours before coming to work. In recent years, NRC made major pro-safety changes to its FFD rules, as a result of reports from licensees.
As the IG documents note, a local NRC investigative office looked into NSF’s compliance with FFD procedures after receiving the results of NSF’s review of the allegations. While POGO doesn’t have details on the local NRC office’s review (as is often the case, a report on this review isn’t available online), the IG documents say the NRC local office closed and then reopened case to investigate possibly false statements made by an attorney representing NFS about the company president entering rehab.
IG investigations like this deserve more public attention, but as long as they remain behind a FOIA wall, they’ll stay largely invisible.
Mia Steinle is a POGO investigator.