Department of Energy:

Clear Strategy on External Regulation Needed for Worker and Nuclear Facility Safety

RCED-98-163: Published: May 21, 1998. Publicly Released: May 21, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) position on external regulation, and its strategy for conducting pilots on external regulation, focusing on: (1) issues related to worker safety and nuclear facility safety; and (2) DOE's laboratories, for which DOE is evaluating issues related to external regulation.

GAO noted that: (1) DOE's position on the external regulation of safety is unclear; (2) five years ago, DOE's leadership made a commitment to subject worker safety in its multibillion-dollar nuclear research and defense network to external regulation; (3) to achieve this goal, DOE endorsed recommendations to phase out its self-regulation practices over a 10-year period, starting with legislation by 1998 to authorize external regulation; (4) in late 1997, however, DOE embarked on a 2-year pilot program to simulate regulation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at 6 to 10 of DOE's nuclear sites; (5) at the end of this pilot, DOE and NRC will jointly decide if external regulation by NRC is warranted; (6) DOE's decision to conduct pilots represents a shift from its former strong endorsement to externally regulate all of its facilities; (7) DOE's uncertain position has both NRC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concerned about the Department's commitment to external regulation; (8) although DOE's pilot will provide useful insights, the information collected will not represent the size and the complexity of DOE's vast nuclear complex and thus will not yield the practical data needed to address many critical issues on external regulation; (9) for example, NRC estimates that it could regulate the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California--the site of DOE's first pilot--for about one-fifth of one staff person per year; (10) this estimate, however, does not represent the cost of regulating the vast majority of DOE's nuclear facilities, nor will much of the information obtained from the other two pilot sites be representative; (11) the three sites in the pilot program contain no nuclear reactors, weapons plants, or heavily contaminated facilities, even though these kinds of facilities were the reason for seeking external regulation in the first place and defense and environmental cleanup sites constitute 80 percent of the Department's complex; and (12) moreover, DOE is not integrating OSHA with NRC in its pilots; instead, each regulatory agency is proceeding under a separate strategy without the benefit of collaborating to better understand jurisdictional overlaps.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE is beginning the process of clarifying its positions on external regulation. Its July 1, 2002, implementation plan states that external regulation may well be the direction that the Department should take, based on available evidence. In May 2002, DOE's Under Secretary told the House Appropriations Committee that he supports moving to external regulation and said that the Secretary also supports external regulation.

    Recommendation: Given DOE's wavering position on external regulation and the limitations in its pilots, the Secretary of Energy should clarify the Department's position on the external regulation of worker safety and nuclear facility safety at DOE's facilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On July 1, 2002, DOE prepared an implementation plan for external regulation of its Science laboratories. This plan, which was developed in response to direction from the 2002 Appropriations Committee conference report, outlines a detailed strategy for shifting its science labs to external regulation. It contains specific steps for the transition, with milestones and targets. The plan also states that external regulation may well be the direction that the Department should take. In May 2002, DOE's Under Secretary said that he supports moving to external regulation and noted that the Secretary also supports external regulation.

    Recommendation: Given DOE's wavering position on external regulation and the limitations in its pilots, the Secretary of Energy should develop a strategy to implement the external regulation of worker safety and nuclear facility safety that is consistent with the Department's position. This strategy should include specific goals, objectives, and milestones and show how the information from the pilot projects, and other techniques, will meet the strategy's goals and objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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