Friday, November 21, 2008

Nuclear Safety: Department of Energy needs to Strengthen Its Independent Oversight of Nuclear Facilitiesd and Operations

This Government Accountability Office Report (GAO-09-61) dated October 2008 finds that:

"The Dept of Energy structured its independent oversight Office of Health, Safety and Security, in a way that falls short of meeting our key elements of effective independent oversight of nuclear safety. Specifically, HSS does not fully meet these key elements:

Results in Brief
• Independence: HSS operates separately within the department from the program offices. However, HSS is not included in the safety basis review process for new nuclear facilities or for significant modifications to existing facilities, some of which may raise new safety concerns. Instead, this review process is conducted by the program offices at the DOE sites, which raises questions about the independence of this process. HSS also lacks its own representatives at DOE sites and the head of the office does not have a position comparable to program office heads from which to
independently advocate for nuclear safety.
• Technical expertise: An HSS predecessor office, the Office of Environment, Safety and Health, had more than 20 technical experts in nuclear safety review positions—positions that do not exist in HSS. Moreover, HSS has vacancies for four nuclear safety specialists in two subordinate offices. For example, two of the five critical nuclear safety specialist positions in HSS’s Office of Enforcement remain vacant. This HSS office and the Office of Independent Oversight have had to rely on personnel from other HSS offices, the program offices, and contractors to fulfill their responsibilities. In addition, with about half of its overall staff eligible to retire in the next 5 years, HSS plans to meet this challenge through special hiring authority and continued use of other federal personnel and contractors to maintain an adequate technical resource base.

Ability to perform reviews and require that findings be addressed: HSS has some limitations in its nuclear safety review functions. First, we found that HSS lacks basic information about the high-hazard nuclear facilities it is supposed to oversee. As of December 2007, HSS did not have accurate information regarding the total number of these nuclear facilities or the number of facilities that lacked an approved safety basis meeting requirements set in 2001. We conducted a survey and identified 205 highhazard nuclear facilities—31 did not have updated safety basis documentation. We also found that about one-third of the 205 facilities do not fully conform with DOE guidance to limit the time that temporary control measures can be used to allow a high-hazard nuclear facility to operate outside of its approved safety basis. Even though HSS is the only independent office with oversight of nuclear safety, it has no role in reviewing these operational decisions. Second, although HSS periodically inspects DOE sites and identifies program deficiencies, there are some gaps in meeting its internal guidelines to inspect sites with nuclear
facilities at least every 2 to 4 years or more frequently, depending on the risks. We determined that HSS and a predecessor office did not inspect 8 of the 22 sites where high-hazard nuclear facilities are located in the last 5 years. Third, although the program offices are required to develop corrective actions in response to HSS inspection findings, HSS generally does not review the effectiveness of these actions until it returns to the same site for another inspection, which occurred approximately every 3 years on average since 2000 for the seven sites with the most high-hazard nuclear facilities (13 to 38 facilities), and on average every 6 years for the sites with two to seven high-hazard nuclear facilities.
• Enforcement authority: HSS has the authority to levy civil penalties and take other enforcement actions against contractors that violate nuclear safety requirements, but it has not been able to reduce some recurring violations. This is despite HSS guidance that prioritizes addressing longstanding and recurring violations with increased enforcement actions. We found that 9 of the 25 most frequently cited violations of DOE nuclear safety requirements occurred at the same or higher average frequency in 2007 as in 2005. We determined that while HSS had frequently conducted enforcement activities at the sites with the most high-hazard nuclear facilities, they were also the sites where the failure to perform work
consistent with technical standards was the most common recurring violation.
• Public access: The public generally does not have access to HSS reports addressing environment, safety, and health deficiencies at sites with highhazard nuclear facilities.

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