This article was produced in partnership with The Santa Fe New Mexican, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
New Mexico’s senators are asking Congress to block a Department of Energy order that would limit a federal board’s access to information about nuclear facilities and could hinder its ability to oversee worker health and safety.
In a letter sent Wednesday to the leaders of a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall also asked their colleagues to block impending staff cuts and a broad reorganization at the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. New Mexico is home to three of the 14 nuclear facilities under the board’s jurisdiction: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
“We feel strongly that these two matters facing the [safety board] and its future must be suspended while Congress and the public have time to review and offer constructive feedback” on how to maintain and improve the board, the senators wrote to Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairman and ranking member of the energy and water development subcommittee.
Spokespeople for Alexander and Feinstein said that the senators were still reviewing the proposal. Both senators have large nuclear facilities in their states.
The nuclear safety board, which falls under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction, was established in 1988 to provide additional oversight and transparency to the Department of Energy’s largely self-regulating nuclear complexes, which were plagued by contamination and negligent safety practices. The board reviews incidents and near-misses, and it provides safety recommendations and advice to the energy secretary. But there have been efforts to hamper the board, and over the last year, it has faced a series of attacks on its independence and very existence, even from its own leadership.
Last summer the board’s then-chairman suggested his agency be dissolved, calling it a relic of the Cold War. And a few months later, the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy that oversees nuclear facilities, proposed eliminating written weekly reports on safety issues at the labs to avoid public scrutiny. Neither of these proposals were adopted.
This month, the board approved a plan to slash staff at its Washington headquarters, which would be partially offset by increasing the number of inspectors working at national laboratories and nuclear plants. The measure was approved by three of the four board members. Board member Joyce Connery wrote in her dissenting vote that the public should have had an opportunity to weigh in on the plan, which it did not.
On Tuesday, the board convened a hearing with officials from the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration to discuss the new order limiting the board’s access to information. Board members criticized the order, saying it appears to contradict the U.S. Atomic Energy Act.
Board members said that neither they nor workers nor members of the public were formally consulted on the order, and it has already prevented them from accessing safety information at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Pantex Plant in Texas.
Energy officials said the order is intended to update a 17-year-old guideline for how the Department of Energy and the board should interact.
But Udall and Heinrich said Thursday that neither action should have moved forward without “real consultation with Congress.”
At a campaign meeting in Santa Fe this month, Heinrich said the order was among “a whole series of policy decisions by this administration that frankly weren’t even in their best long-term interest.”
Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who was at the meeting, acknowledged that there has historically been “a lot of tension” between the board and the Department of Energy, but he said that under the Obama administration, “our view was that working with the safety board was the way to go forward.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, however, the safety board’s acting chairman, Bruce Hamilton, said three presidential administrations, including Obama’s, have tried to make similar changes to the board’s role.
The New Mexican and ProPublica first reported on the order’s existence in July. Since then, several nuclear watchdog groups and members of the public have called for the order to be suspended. At Tuesday’s hearing, board member Daniel Santos asked Energy officials if they believed the order should be frozen until Congress and members of the public could provide input; they said they did not.