Nuclear Safety:

Department of Energy Should Strengthen Its Enforcement Program

T-RCED-99-228: Published: Jun 29, 1999. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the Department of Energy's (DOE) efforts to hold its contractors accountable for nuclear safety requirements, focusing on: (1) what enforceable nuclear safety rules DOE has issued; (2) which DOE facilities and contractors are covered by these rules; (3) how DOE has enforced the nuclear safety rules; and (4) whether there is a continued need for exempting certain contractors from paying penalties for violating nuclear safety rules.

GAO noted that: (1) since 1988, DOE has issued enforceable rules covering only 2 of 11 safety areas originally proposed--radiation protection for workers and quality assurance issues that define how work is planned and carried out; (2) the other nine safety areas not included in the rules, such as training and certification of employees performing vital operations, are still covered in DOE orders, and DOE generally includes compliance with them as part of its contracts; (3) however, not elevating safety orders to the status of enforceable rules has limited the overall effectiveness of the enforcement program because DOE has fewer options to ensure that contractors are meeting safety requirements and correcting any deficiencies; (4) nuclear safety rules are to be enforced at any DOE facility with the potential to cause radiological harm to the public, workers, or the environment; (5) although no problems have been identified with the application of the radiation protection for workers rule to the activities of DOE's contractors, DOE field offices have been inconsistent in the degree to which they have placed nuclear facilities under the quality assurance rule; (6) not properly categorizing DOE facilities as subject to the rules could potentially affect the type of safety oversight carried out by contractors, as well as the enforcement activity undertaken by DOE; (7) DOE began its enforcement program in 1996 and concentrates its investigations and enforcement actions on those violations of nuclear safety rules that are the most significant; (8) between 1996 and 1998, DOE has taken 33 enforcement actions and assessed more than $1.8 million in penalties; (9) although DOE recommended in March 1999 that the statutory exemption from paying penalties be continued and expanded to include all nonprofit contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers, the exemption may no longer be needed; (10) DOE cited 3 reasons for continuing the exemption--nonprofit contractors' unwillingness to put their assets at risk if required to pay civil penalties, effectiveness of existing contract mechanisms in obtaining compliance, and consistency with other regulatory agencies' treatment of nonprofit organizations; and (11) however, nonprofit contractors now have contract-related fees available that could be used to pay penalties, contract mechanisms have not been effectively used to address safety-related problems, and other regulatory agencies collect penalties and administrative costs from nonprofit organizations.

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