Nuclear Safety:

Unresolved Issues Could Impair DOE's Oversight Effectiveness

RCED-94-129: Published: Jun 7, 1994. Publicly Released: Jun 22, 1994.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) restructuring of its nuclear safety oversight functions, focusing on: (1) whether the proposed changes would improve DOE ability to ensure nuclear safety; (2) the process DOE used to consolidate the Nuclear Safety and Environment, Safety and Health (ES&H) Offices; and (3) issues that could affect ES&H nuclear safety oversight functions.

GAO found that: (1) DOE has not evaluated the potential impact of consolidating the Nuclear Safety and ES&H Offices; (2) the DOE restructuring plan is based on the Secretary's organizational management and structure views and is intended to streamline DOE safety and health oversight activities; (3) DOE will attempt to strengthen the ES&H Office by requiring the ES&H Assistant Secretary to report directly to the Secretary; (4) the DOE organization responsible for the independent oversight of nuclear safety must have adequate authority, independence from line management, and an adequate number of technically qualified staff to be effective; (5) although the ES&H Office has the authority to suspend operations in cases of imminent danger, it does not have a systematic approach to elevate safety issues up the chain of command to ensure their resolution; (6) ES&H may not be able to take adequate or timely action to resolve safety issues identified by the Office or have adequate independence without a line management process; and (7) although the ES&H Office plans to increase its overall staffing level, it is not clear whether the Office will allocate adequate qualified staff to effectively carry out its nuclear safety oversight and enforcement functions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has reported to GAO that it fulfilled this recommendation with the issuance of a new "Manual of Functions, Assignments, and Responsibilities for Nuclear Safety" in July 1994. This manual is based on DOE's existing orders and outlines the nuclear safety-related responsibilities of various DOE officials. While this manual does clarify the responsibilities of DOE officials for ensuring nuclear safety, it does not establish a systematic approach for the ES&H Office to elevate issues up the chain of command within DOE. The Oversight Office of DOE's ES&H Office has started to provide weekly reports to the Assistant Secretary for ES&H and the Under Secretary on major issues compiled by the Office's site representatives. While this step moves the Department farther toward fulfilling this recommendation, it does not establish a systematic, institutionalized process for elevating issues to the Secretary when necessary.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should establish a systematic approach for the ES&H Office to elevate safety issues up the chain of command, and ultimately to the Secretary, when necessary to obtain their adequate and timely resolution. Such an approach should include: (1) the routine issuance of formal reports on significant unresolved issues to senior line officials and the Secretary; and (2) direction to the ES&H Office to notify the Secretary when significant unresolved issues require the Secretary's involvement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To separate its oversight activities from its assistance activities, the ES&H Office, in a December 1994 reorganization, placed its ES&H oversight functions within one suboffice responsible solely for oversight. In November 1995, the ES&H Office established procedures for ensuring the independence of this new Oversight Office and its staff. Finally, in May 1996, the ES&H Office removed its nuclear safety enforcement and investigations staff from a suboffice responsible for assisting DOE facilities in improving nuclear safety, and relocated them to report directly to the Assistant Secretary for ES&H.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should ensure the independence of the ES&H Office's oversight and enforcement functions by separating these functions organizationally from the Office's assistance functions and by developing an oversight approach that places a priority on independence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ES&H Office oversight officials have determined their overall staffing requirements for conducting oversight but have not been able to fill some nuclear safety oversight positions because of a hiring freeze. However, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oversight believes that ES&H has been able to compensate for this situation by better utilizing existing staff. For example, it has developed site teams, composed of headquarters and site representative staff, that are responsible for oversight of particular sites. According to the Director of the office responsible for enforcing nuclear safety standards, it is difficult to determine the number of staff required because it is just beginning enforcement activities. It has 5 staff and are authorized to hire 4 more. He believes that this number is adequate for now.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should ensure the availability in the ES&H Office of an adequate number of qualified staff to oversee nuclear safety and enforce nuclear safety standards by determining the number of staff needed to perform these functions and reassigning staff accordingly.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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