By PETER STOCKTON and ROBERT ALVAREZ
Yesterday, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces reported legislation that would seriously undermine health, safety, and financial accountability of the Department of Energy's (DOE) nuclear weapons program. Managed within DOE by the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the nuclear weapons complex operates sprawling laboratories and production facilities in New Mexico, Nevada, California, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina. At more than $8 billion this year, nuclear weapons activities command about 30 percent of the agency’s annual budget.
At the heart of the sweeping changes in this legislation, the House Defense Authorization Bill for fiscal year 2013, are several requirements, including:
- A shift to “performance-based” oversight, which would eliminate health, safety, and financial standards that impose fines and penalties for violations. The subcommittee cites the success of this model in the private sector, but avoids the facts that, unlike the private sector, nuclear weapons facilities are ultra-hazardous, have very large radioactive waste legacies, excess cancer and beryllium disease among its employees, a long history of safety problems, and contractor mismanagement enabled by self regulation. For more than 20 years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has listed DOE’s nuclear weapons program on its “high risk” list of programs most vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse.
- Establishment of a “National Security Administration Council” made up of weapons contractors to look over the shoulder of the DOE and NNSA and then make recommendations regarding “scientific and technical issues related to policy matters and on operational concerns, strategic planning and development of priorities.” The council will have the authority to require the Secretary of Energy to respond to its recommendations within 60 days. This gives contractors, especially from the weapons labs, an unprecedented oversight role of an inherently government function.
- Weakening the authority of the Secretary of Energy to oversee the weapons laboratories. The Subcommittee restricts the authority of the Energy Secretary by requiring congressional approval of any disapproval of policies, actions regulations, or rules issued by the NNSA. To justify this, the Subcommittee cites a 2009 study paid for by the weapons labs advocating the creation of an independent nuclear weapons agency free from the DOE, and overseen by contractors.
- Weakening the DOE Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board. The Board was established in 1988 because of several serious lapses in safety at DOE nuclear sites. However, under the proposed legislation, it would effectively be required to negotiate its safety recommendations for a period of 45 days with the DOE prior to making a recommendation—a process that would compromise the Board’s independence and undermine safety. Furthermore, the legislation would require the Secretary of Energy to wait for 15 days before bringing a finding of “imminent or severe threat to public health and safety” to the attention of the President.
- Elimination of DOE’s internal health, safety, and security oversight functions. The Subcommittee wants to transfer oversight to the NNSA, which would eliminate the role of the DOE’s Office of Health Safety and Security, which reports directly to the Secretary and is responsible for oversight and enforcement of safety and security requirements. Some of DOE’s standards protecting workers are more stringent than OSHA, which the Subcommittee apparently finds to be “most burdensome.” This change would eliminate the DOE’s worker exposure standard for Beryllium, a major source of occupational risk at weapons labs. DOE’s standard is 10 times as protective as federal OSHA’s. In 2010, the DOE fined Livermore National Laboratory $200,000 after the 27 employees showed early signs of health problems after being exposed to beryllium from 7 safety lapses. At the same time, the Subcommittee recommends a significant cut in the NNSA staff –claiming major cost savings.
A Department of Defense memo recently obtained by POGO provides a devastating critique of the financial mismanagement and lack of scientific rigor of the DOE’s nuclear weapons laboratories. The Subcommittee has ignored this and appears to be taking its signals from these same laboratories that advocate operating in total secrecy and with unfettered self-regulation.
Peter Stockton is POGO's senior investigator. Robert Alvarez is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.