Department of Energy:

Observations on Using External Agencies to Regulate Nuclear and Worker Safety in DOE's Science Laboratories

GAO-02-868R: Published: Jun 26, 2002. Publicly Released: Jun 26, 2002.

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Gary L. Jones
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The Department of Energy's (DOE) complex of research and nuclear facilities is not inspected or licensed by an independent external regulator, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Instead, DOE and its predecessors have, since 1946, been granted legislative authority to self-regulate nuclear and worker safety in the department's facilities. DOE officials told GAO that (1) the department's current position on external regulation is "neutral" because the Secretary has insufficient information on which to make a decision; (2) another study is needed to develop data on the costs and benefits of making the transition to, and operating under, external regulation, and (3) a realistic implementation plan cannot be developed for the six to nine months DOE estimates the study will take. On the other hand, NRC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report that they are prepared to begin regulating the department's 10 science laboratories. The cost of upgrading DOE facilities to regulator standards may not be significant for a variety of reasons. First, NRC concluded from its simulations that few changes to DOE facilities are needed to meet it's licensing requirements. Second, NRC stated that it would be flexible in applying its standards to DOE's unique facilities without compromising safety. Finally, OSHA concluded from its simulations that DOE deficiencies are similar to levels found in the private-sector. Externally regulating DOE facilities would improve safety, eliminate the inherent conflict of interest from self-regulations, achieve consistency with current domestic and international safety management practices, and gain credibility and public trust. Potential cost-saving benefits were also noted. The United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, and Belgium all have science facilities operated by contractors on behalf of sponsoring government agencies. These governments have long traditions of using external regulators; essentially none of them self-regulate nuclear and worker safety.

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