By MIA STEINLE and ANGELA CANTERBURY
The House version of the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 4310) marks a major step backwards for health, safety, security, and financial oversight at the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories. Several amendments to the bill will weaken important checks on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its contractor-run labs, which have an alarming and voluminous record of poor management.
The House NDAA gives the troubled NNSA labs the ability to self-report and self-regulate their performance. It also lowers the bar for health, safety, and security standards by eliminating cabinet-level oversight of the labs by the Department of Energy (DOE) and shifting the power to the NNSA and its contractors. It also weakens the authority of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a panel that provides the only real independent oversight of nuclear safety. See this section-by-section analysis of the NDAA's nuclear provisions by Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.
The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on H.R. 4310 last week saying it “strongly opposes” these rollbacks of oversight at the nuclear labs, echoing Members of Congress, such as Representative George Miller (D-CA). Miller, the senior member of the committee that oversees worker safety and health, spoke before the House last week expressing his disappointment at the bill.
“This bill needlessly puts in jeopardy the safety of workers and residents who live near nuclear weapons facilities,” Miller said. “To protect workers, residents, and taxpayers, we need to ask the contractors to live up to the highest standards of safety. This legislation does not do that.”
In fact, the House-passed NDAA would strip the worker safety rules Congress directed DOE to strengthen in 2003. Instead, NNSA would develop standards no more stringent than those at Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—even though these are not nearly adequate for working with nuclear weapons. See this comparison of worker safety standards under OSHA rules vs. DOE’s current standards for the nuclear weapons labs (10 CFR 851).
Miller proposed an amendment to the NDAA with Representatives Pete Visclosky (D-IN) and Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) to stop the rollback of health, safety, security, and financial oversight at the labs. Another amendment, proposed by Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), would have reversed restrictions on “higher level and independent oversight” of the labs, thereby maintaining the current role of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. House leadership, acting through the Rules Committee, did not allow either amendment to be debated or taken up for vote.
But the spirit of these amendments was supported by the very people who are most affected by these rollbacks. Members of a nuclear worker advocacy group wrote to Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) earlier this week, urging the congressman to delete language from the House defense bill that would lower safety standards and put workers at risk. The Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups pointed to a troubled history in which lab workers in past decades “were put at risk without their knowledge and consent for reasons that, documents reveal, were driven by fears of adverse publicity, liability, and employee demands for hazardous duty pay.”
The letter continued, “[…] if this language remains in the NDAA the workplace environment at the nuclear weapons facilities will revert back to the ‘profit over protection’ philosophy. This would result in, once again, workers needlessly placed in harm’s way.”
The labs have been pushing for rollbacks in a variety of contexts. A year ago DOE lab directors compiled a list of what they called “burdensome policies and practices.” Among other things, the lab directors proposed weakening safety and health programs to the minimum standards required by law.
And earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences released a report that cited a “broken relationship” between the NNSA and its labs. The report noted that the lab directors want to reduce “administrative, safety and security costs…so that they not impose an excessive burden on essential S&E [science and engineering] activities.” Unbelievably, the report states that safety and security “have been strengthened to the point where they no longer need special attention.”
However, it is evident that the conclusion of the National Academy of Sciences is not supported by the facts. Not only has the Government Accountability Office put management of the NNSA labs on its “high risk” list for more than 20 years, but the labs have also been plagued by many troubling incidents in the past few years and have been the subject of several investigations by the DOE Office of Inspector General (OIG) and other DOE offices. These incidents include:
- The OIG reported in November 2010 that it discovered “over $10 million in questioned and unresolved costs” claimed by Sandia National Laboratories in FYs 2007 and 2008 alone. The report said that “weak enforcement of internal policies related to purchase card transactions, business meals, and expense vouchers” contributed to these disputed costs, and identified over $1 million in just business meals and employee travel.
- A DOE Office of Enforcement investigation found several lapses in safety at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory between 2007 and 2010 that resulted in worker overexposure to beryllium, which can cause lung disease and lung cancer. Of the exposed workers, 27 were found to have early signs of potential beryllium disease. It was also reported in March 2012 that, in four of five incidents where workers were exposed to airborne beryllium, the exposure level exceeded safe limits.
- In June 2010, a DOE investigation determined that Sandia had put worker safety and health at risk during “the inadvertent ignition of a rocket motor at the 10,000-foot sled track facility” at the lab two years prior. The DOE noted that “Sandia did not implement essential elements of its explosives safety program,” and that the lab “failed to identify and assess explosives safety hazards, implement proper controls, train workers, and develop adequate work procedures for test operations at the sled track”
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, whose independent recommendations to the NNSA and its labs would be subject to DOE review and potential negotiations under the House bill, has also found numerous violations of health and safety issues at the labs. The SAP on H.R. 4310 states this move will “severely hamper external, independent oversight” by the Board. The bill also gives NNSA and the labs more time to respond to Board recommendations, which, given the labs’ track record, only opens the door for more negligence. Issues highlighted by the Board in the past few years include:
- In its 2011 annual report to Congress, the Board found, “A severe accident at the Plutonium Facility (PF-4) at Los Alamos National Laboratory would present a significant risk to the public, and is therefore one of the Board’s greatest safety concerns.” The Board also noted that despite its recommendation to stabilize dangerous nuclear materials (such as plutonium) at several DOE sites in 2001, Los Alamos remains “years overdue” in fixing this problem.
- In March 2010, personnel at Livermore discovered “a bulging 55 gallon drum” that had been used to collect mop water since 2007. The drum was suspected to contain low levels of the radioactive material tritium, which is used to boost the explosive yield of nuclear weapons. The lab had drawn up a plan to vent the drum, however, as the report noted, “No fire protection or chemical process safety personnel were involved in the planning."
- In a December 2011 report, the Board noted a safety incident that had occurred at Los Alamos several months earlier that “highlighted the pressing need to address shortcomings” at the lab. According to the report, a researcher who wanted to photograph the results of an operation removed plutonium metal rods from a location he was not permitted to work in and “violated posted criticality safety limits” by placing more rods than were allowed in another location. When another employee discovered this, the two then “violated requirements for dealing with criticality safety infractions” by putting the rods back themselves.
Oversight problems at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs are no secret. There are many more reports that are available online to the public from the Board, the OIG, and the GAO that demonstrate the urgent need for greater oversight measures at the labs. In fact, earlier this year, the GAO testified before Congress calling for greater oversight of the NNSA labs and refuting the lab directors’ claim that oversight in the labs is burdensome:
As work carried out at NNSA’s sites involves dangerous nuclear materials such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium, stringent safety procedures and security requirements must be observed. …NNSA’s problems are not caused by excessive oversight but instead result from ineffective departmental oversight.
Unfortunately, not enough House Members were aware of the facts before voting in a favor of a bill that practically ensures that dangerous and costly health, safety, security, and financial problems that plague the labs will worsen. Leadership ensured that when they refused to allow the Miller-Visclosky-Sanchez and Smith amendments to be considered.
However, there is hope that the Senate will be more thoughtful. This week the Senate Armed Services Committee begins their debate and votes on their version of the NDAA. As Robert Alvarez told POGO, “Now is the time to give the DNFSB real authority to regulate nuclear safety by authorizing it to assume responsibility for approving new construction, overseeing current operations, including worker safety, and assessing fines and penalties.”
We agree with Mr. Alvarez, and hope that as senators seek solutions to the problems at the labs, they will first do no harm—and then will tackle the real need for more oversight and enforcement. Self-policing for the contractors who keep our nuclear weapons puts all of us at risk.
Mia Steinle is a POGO investigator. Angela Canterbury is POGO's director of public policy.