Twin cooling towers of the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station in California (U.S. Energy Department photo)

DOE and Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Should Together Strengthen Oversight, Says GAO

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board provides independent analysis, advice, and recommendations on health and safety protections for the Department of Energy’s defense nuclear facilities. For example, its staff monitor activities involving nuclear explosives at the Pantex Plant in Texas.

The Government Accountability Office found that provisions of DOE’s 2018 order governing its interactions with the Board were inconsistent with the law and long-standing practices. For example, some restrictions on the Board’s access to information were not found in law. DOE replaced this order in June 2020.

GAO recommendations are to promote effective Board oversight of these facilities.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Order 140.1 included provisions inconsistent with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s (DNFSB) original enabling statute—the statute in place when the order was issued—and with long-standing practices. For example, GAO found that Order 140.1 contained provisions restricting DNFSB’s access to information that were not included in the statute. GAO also found Order 140.1 to be inconsistent with long-standing DNFSB practices regarding staff’s access to certain National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) meetings at the Pantex Plant in Texas, where nuclear weapons are assembled and disassembled (see fig.). In December 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20 NDAA) amended DNFSB’s statute to clarify and confirm DNFSB’s authority and long-standing practices between the agencies. DOE replaced Order 140.1 with Order 140.1A in June 2020.

DNFSB, DOE, and NNSA officials that GAO interviewed identified concerns with Order 140.1 that GAO found are not addressed under DOE’s Order 140.1A. In particular, DOE’s Order 140.1A was not part of a collaborative effort to address DNFSB’s remaining concerns related to access to information and other regular interagency interactions. For example, DNFSB officials cited concerns that DOE could interpret a provision of DNFSB’s statute authorizing the Secretary of Energy to deny access to information in a way that could limit DNFSB access to information to which it has had access in the past. GAO has previously recommended that agencies develop formal written agreements to enhance collaboration. By collaborating to develop an agreement that, among other things, incorporates a common understanding of this provision, DOE and DNFSB could lessen the risks of DNFSB being denied access to information important for conducting oversight. DOE and NNSA officials, as well as contractor representatives involved in operating the facilities, also raised concerns that insufficient training on Order 140.1 contributed to uncertainties about how to engage with DNFSB staff when implementing the order, a problem that GAO found could persist under Order 140.1A. Providing more robust training on Order 140.1A would help ensure consistent implementation of the revised order at relevant facilities.

GAO is making a recommendation to DOE and DNFSB that they collaborate to develop a written agreement, and an additional two recommendations to DOE, including that it develop more robust training on Order 140.1A. DOE and DNFSB agreed to develop a written agreement. DOE agreed with one of the other two recommendations, but did not agree to provide more robust training. GAO maintains that the recommended action is valid.

Read the GAO report

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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