Monday, October 30, 2017

Nuclear Safety Culture Under Assault: DNFSB Chairman Proposes Eliminating the Board

DNFSB headquarters
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) recently published a report* that disclosed a private letter** from Sean Sullivan, the Chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget in which the chairman proposed abolishing or downsizing the DNFSB.  The CPI is highly critical of the chairman’s proposals; support for their position includes a list of the safety improvements in the Department of Energy (DOE) complex that have resulted from DNFSB recommendations and the safety challenges that DOE facilities continue to face.

The CPI also cites a 2014 National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA, the DOE sub-organization that oversees the nuclear weapons facilities) internal report that describes NNSA’s own safety culture weaknesses, e.g., lack of a questioning attitude toward contractor management’s performance claims, with respect to its oversight of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The CPI believes the chairman is responding to pressure from the private contractors who actually manage DOE facilities to reduce outside interference in, and oversight of, contractor activities.  That’s certainly plausible.  The contractors get paid regardless of their level of performance, and very little of that pay is tied to safety performance.  DNFSB recommendations and reports can be thorns in the sides of contractor management.

The Sullivan Letter

The primary proposal in the Sullivan letter is to abolish the DNFSB because the DOE has developed its own “robust regulatory structure” and oversight capabilities via the Office of Enterprise Assessments.  That’s a hollow rationale; the CPI report discusses the insufficiency of DOE’s own assessments.  If outright elimination is not politically doable then DNFSB personnel could be transferred to DOE, sustaining the appearance of independent oversight, and then be slowly absorbed into the larger DOE organization.  That is not a path to increased public confidence and looks like being assimilated by the Borg.***  The savings that could be realized from abolishing the DNFSB is estimated at $31 million, a number lost in the decimal dust of DOE’s $30+ billion budget.

Sullivan mentions but opposes transferring the DNFSB’s oversight responsibilities to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Why?  Because the NRC is not only independent, it has enforcement powers which would be inappropriate for defense nuclear facilities and might compromise national security.  That’s a red herring but we’ll let it go; we don’t think oversight of defense facilities really meshes with the NRC’s mission.

His secondary proposal is to downsize the DNFSB workforce, especially its management structure, and transfer most of the survivors to specific defense facilities.  While we think DNFSB needs more resources, not fewer, it would be better if more DNFSB personnel were located in the field, keeping track of and reporting on DOE and contractor activities.

Our Perspective

Safetymatters first became interested in the DNFSB when we saw the growing mess at the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP, aka the Vit Plant) in Hanford, WA.  It was the DNFSB who forced the DOE and its WTP contractors to confront and remediate serious nuclear safety culture (NSC) problems.  We have published multiple reports on the resultant foot-dragging by DOE in its responses to DNFSB Recommendation 2011-1 which addressed safety conscious work environment (SCWE) problems at Hanford and other DOE facilities.  Click on the DOE label to see our offerings on WTP, other DOE facilities and the overall DOE complex.
We have reported on the NSC problems at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.  The DNFSB has played an important role in attempting to get DOE and the WIPP contractor to strengthen their safety practices.  Click the WIPP label to see our WIPP-related posts. 

We have also covered a report on the DNFSB’s own organizational issues, including board members’ meddling in day-to-day activities, weak leadership and too-frequent organizational changes.  See our Feb. 6, 2015 post for details.

DNFSB’s internal issues notwithstanding, the board plays an indispensible role in strengthening NSC and safety practices throughout the DOE complex.  They should be given greater authority (which won’t happen), stronger leadership and additional resources.

Bottom line: Sullivan’s proposal is just plain nuts.  He’s a Republican appointee so maybe he’s simply offering homage to his ultimate overlord.

*  P. Malone and R.J. Smith, “GOP chair of nuclear safety agency secretly urges Trump to abolish it,” The Center for Public Integrity (Oct. 19, 2017).  Retrieved Oct. 26, 2017.

**  S. Sullivan (DNFSB) to J.M Mulvaney (Management and Budget), no subject specified but described as an “initial high-level draft of [an] Agency Reform Plan” (June 29, 2019).  Available from the CPI in html and pdf format.  Retrieved Oct. 26, 2017.

***  The Borg is an alien group entity in Star Trek that forcibly assimilates other beings.  See Wikipedia for more information.

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