New Government Watchdog Report Questions the Direction of DOE’s Nuclear Safety Reforms at Nation’s Most Critical Sites

May 23, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC - House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) expressed concern today with a government watchdog’s latest report to committee leadership on Department of Energy safety reforms at the nation’s most sensitive nuclear storage sites and laboratories. The Government Accountability Office report, “Nuclear Safety: DOE Needs to Determine the Costs and Benefits of Its Safety Reform Effort,” finds that while DOE significantly cut its safety directives to combat duplication, the agency did not first determine whether the directives it planned to revise were indeed burdensome or costly and would impact security procedures.

According to GAO, “DOE reduced the number of safety directives from 80 to 42, and for some of the directives DOE maintained, it made extensive revisions. … The benefits of DOE’s reform effort are not clear. DOE intended to enhance productivity and reduce costs while maintaining safety, but DOE did not determine how the original requirements contained in safety directives impaired productivity or added costs before undertaking the reform effort.”

GAO reports the National Labs could not provide specific examples of safety requirements that were burdensome nor could the labs explain how burdensome requirements affect productivity and costs.  A National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) study also found that the original safety requirements did not place an undue burden on contractors. In the meantime, GAO notes that quality assurance and safety culture issues persist, and that increased coordination of site office management and DOE’s Independent Oversight Staff raises concerns whether the staff is sufficiently independent to provide the Secretary and NNSA management a critical review of safety at DOE’s sites.

Given the long history of DOE’s management challenges and the grave safety and security risks within the nuclear weapons complex, the committee has been examining whether DOE’s reform efforts would continue to ensure and sustain the safety and security-related improvements implemented over the past decade. The committee wants to ensure that DOE and management remain aware of lessons from past incidents and management failures, and not rush reforms that may undercut strong federal oversight of contractors.

The GAO report concludes, “It is also unclear how revising safety directives will address past and recurring safety concerns with quality assurance, safety culture, and federal oversight of contractor activities that we and others have identified over the years.  Many of the directives DOE revised were originally developed to correct problems in these areas. In revising these directives, DOE could be undermining hard-won progress over the years in safety performance at its sites.”

Chairman Upton stated, “The GAO’s findings underscore how important it is for the Energy and Commerce Committee to continue our bipartisan scrutiny of safety and security at DOE and the Nuclear Weapons Complex. We must not forget the failures of the recent past, which this committee helped expose, but ensure the right lessons are drawn from these failures as we seek to ensure appropriate reform efforts going forward. This is a matter of critical national security, and the security at these sensitive sites must remain airtight. We will continue monitoring the activities at DOE and NNSA and plan to hold a hearing this summer.”

The full GAO report can be found HERE.