Nuclear Safety:

Department of Energy Needs to Strengthen Its Independent Oversight of Nuclear Facilities and Operations

GAO-09-61: Published: Oct 23, 2008. Publicly Released: Nov 18, 2008.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) oversees contractors that operate more than 200 "high-hazard" nuclear facilities, where an accident could have serious consequences for workers and the public. DOE is charged with regulating the safety of these facilities. A key part of DOE's self-regulation is the Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS), which develops, oversees, and helps enforce nuclear safety policies. This is the only DOE safety office intended to be independent of the program offices, which carry out mission responsibilities. This report examines (1) the extent to which HSS meets GAO's elements of effective independent nuclear safety oversight and (2) the factors contributing to any identified shortcomings with respect to these elements. GAO reviewed relevant DOE policies, interviewed officials and outside safety experts, and surveyed DOE sites to determine the number and status of nuclear facilities. GAO also assessed oversight practices against the criteria for independent oversight GAO developed based on a series of reports on DOE nuclear safety and discussions with nuclear safety experts.

HSS falls short of fully meeting GAO's elements of effective independent oversight of nuclear safety: independence, technical expertise, ability to perform reviews and have findings effectively addressed, enforcement, and public access to facility information. For example, HSS's ability to function independently is limited because it has no role in reviewing the "safety basis"--a technical analysis that helps ensure safe design and operation of these facilities--for new high-hazard nuclear facilities and because it has no personnel at DOE sites to provide independent safety observations. In addition, although HSS conducts periodic site inspections and identifies deficiencies that must be addressed, there are gaps in its inspection schedule and it lacks useful information on the status of the safety basis of all nuclear facilities. For example, HSS was not aware that 31 of the 205 facilities did not have a safety basis that meets requirements established in 2001. Finally, while HSS uses its authority to enforce nuclear safety requirements, its actions have not reduced the occurrence of over one-third of the most commonly reported violations in the last 3 years, although this is a priority for HSS. These shortcomings are largely attributable to DOE's decision that some responsibilities and resources of HSS and prior oversight offices more appropriately reside in the program offices. For example, DOE decided in 1999 to eliminate independent oversight personnel at its sites because they were deemed redundant and less effective than oversight by the program offices. DOE also decided in forming HSS in 2006 that its involvement in reviewing facility safety basis documents was not necessary because this is done by the program offices and adequately assessed by HSS during periodic site inspections. Moreover, DOE views HSS's role as secondary to the program offices in addressing recurring nuclear safety violations. Nearly all these shortcomings are in part caused by DOE's desire to strengthen oversight by the program offices, with HSS providing assistance to them in accomplishing their responsibilities. In the absence of external regulation, DOE needs HSS to be more involved in nuclear safety oversight because a key objective of independent oversight is to avoid the potential conflicts of interest that are inherent in program office oversight.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: If the Secretary of Energy does not take appropriate actions on our recommendations, the Congress may wish to consider permanently establishing in law the responsibilities of HSS as noted above with respect to nuclear safety or shifting DOE to external regulation by providing the resources and authority to the Safety Board to oversee all DOE nuclear facilities and to enforce DOE nuclear safety rules and directives.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has taken appropriate actions to implement the report recommendations. As a result, the objective of this matter for consideration has been achieved.

    Matter: If the Secretary of Energy does not take appropriate actions on our recommendations, the Congress may wish to consider permanently establishing in law the responsibilities of HSS as noted above with respect to nuclear safety or shifting DOE to external regulation by providing the resources and authority to NRC to externally regulate all or just the newly constructed DOE nuclear facilities.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has taken appropriate actions to implement the report recommendations. As a result, the objective of this matter for consideration has been achieved.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to review the safety basis for new nuclear facilities and significant modifications to existing facilities to ensure there are no safety concerns.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) completed several actions in response to this recommendation. HSS Office of Enforcement developed an internal standard operating procedure for regular trending and follow-up of technical safety requirement non-compliances--the procedure was signed and dated 06/30/09. HSS Office of Independent Oversight revised its oversight protocols and its Environment Safety and Health appraisal process guide to place a higher priority for new and substantially modified nuclear facilities when developing schedules for independent oversight inspections. HSS Office of Nuclear Safety, Quality Assurance and Environment established a process for reviewing readiness review reports--documentation was issued 05/26/09. As a result of these actions, this recommendation is closed.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to monitor the safety basis status of high-hazard nuclear facilities and ensure that all such facilities operate under current nuclear safety requirements, including the appropriate use of Justifications for Continued Operations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) has completed 2 planned actions in response to this recommendation. In 2009, HSS upgraded its existing safety basis tracking database to include information including the status of Justifications for Continued Operations (JCO). Upgrades to the database included a needs assessment and a database requirements document that corrected a number technical issues that hindered the previous database. The database development, testing, and certification was completed 12/16/09. In addition, HSS revised its guide for the use of JCOs, see DOE G 424.1-1B, page C-4. These actions are responsive to our recommendation and as such the recommendation is closed-implemented.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to increase a presence at DOE sites with nuclear facilities to provide more frequent observations of nuclear safety, provide more independent information to facilitate any necessary enforcement actions, and more routine monitoring of the effectiveness of corrective actions taken in response to HSS findings of deficiency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) completed several actions in response to this recommendation. In June 2009, HSS established the Nuclear Safety Coordinating Committee to coordinate activities and facilitate the transfer of information. In July 2009, HSS Office of Independent Oversight revised its appraisal process protocols and its Environment Safety and Health appraisal process guide to enhance integration of analysis, assistance, policy, and enforcement priorities. These revisions incorporated limited scope methodologies including targeted nuclear safety inspections. These revisions also incorporated additional mechanisms for utilizing information from HSS analysis, policy, enforcement, and assistance functions to establish priorities. In August 2009, the first annual planning meeting to set priorities and areas of focus for nuclear safety inspection for 2010 was held. As a result of these actions, this recommendation is closed.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to ensure that enforcement actions are strengthened to prevent recurring violations of the nuclear safety requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, in May 2009, Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) revised its enforcement process overview and associated standard operating practices to provide enhanced flexibility in the use of consent orders and to provide for more effective use of enforcement letters, consent orders, and security level III citations as potential enforcement actions for less significant nuclear safety violations. In addition, participation by HSS Office of Enforcement in the HSS Nuclear Safety Coordinating Committee and revisions to HSS Office of Independent Oversight appraisal protocol and its Environment Safety and Health appraisal process guide also contribute to Office Enforcement actions taken in response to this recommendation. As a result of these actions, this recommendation is closed.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to establish public access to unclassified appraisal reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, in 2009, Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) revised its website to allow unrestricted access to current HSS appraisal reports. In addition, the July 2009 revision to the HSS Office of Independent Oversight Appraisal Process Protocols included direction that, following approval, each appraisal report be placed on the HSS website, except for rare cases where the report may contain sensitive information. As a result of these actions, this recommendation is closed.

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