Department of Energy:

Views on Proposed Civil Penalties, Security Oversight, and External Safety Regulation Legislation

T-RCED-00-135: Published: Mar 22, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 22, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed its views on three bills designed to improve worker and nuclear facility safety and health as well as to enhance security for the Department of Energy (DOE).

GAO noted that: (1) H.R. 3383 would amend the Atomic Energy Act by eliminating the exemption that allows certain nonprofit contractors to avoid paying civil penalties if they violate DOE's nuclear safety rules; (2) last year, GAO reported and testified on a number of problems with DOE's enforcement of its nuclear safety regulations; (3) GAO suggested that Congress consider eliminating both the statutory and administrative exemptions from paying civil penalties for violations of nuclear safety rules; (4) this bill directly addresses those concerns; (5) H.R. 3906 would legislatively establish an office of independent security oversight within DOE that reports directly to the Secretary; (6) GAO believes that legislatively establishing an office, independent from line management, that oversees safeguards and security across the Department and reports to the Secretary would insulate it from organizational change and programmatic conflicts; (7) since May 1999, DOE's security oversight office has reported to the Secretary; (8) however, prior to May 1999, it was several layers down in the organization and, as a result, oversight findings were not always raised to top management; (9) the legislation would also require an annual report to Congress from that office on the status of its findings; (10) requiring an annual report would make the office's findings more visible and help to ensure prompt corrective actions are taken; (11) H.R. 3907 would eliminate self-regulation of health and safety activities at DOE by authorizing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to regulate and enforce nuclear safety and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to regulate and enforce occupational health and safety for all DOE facilities; (12) this bill provides a sound basis for continuing the process of moving DOE in the direction of external regulation; (13) however, the time frame allowed in the bill for the transition to full external regulation may not be achievable; (14) NRC and OSHA have experience with some DOE facilities--smaller, less complex facilities and nondefense research laboratories; (15) the transition to NRC and OSHA regulation of these facilities could be achieved relatively quickly; and (16) however, issues associated with regulating larger defense facilities are more complex, such as the need for experience with unique activities at weapons facilities, and would take longer to evaluate and may require special consideration.

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