Department of Energy:

DOE's Nuclear Safety Enforcement Program Should Be Strengthened

RCED-99-146: Published: Jun 10, 1999. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) nuclear safety enforcement program, focusing on: (1) the enforceable nuclear safety rules DOE has issued; (2) which DOE facilities and contractors are covered by these rules; (3) DOE's enforcement of 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 are still covered in DOE orders, and DOE generally includes compliance with them as part of its contracts; (3) DOE has no definite schedule for issuing additional rules; (4) nuclear safety rules are to be enforced at any DOE facility with the potential to cause radiological harm to workers, the public, or the environment; (5) although no problems have been identified with the application of the occupational radiation protection rule, DOE field offices have been inconsistent in the degree to which they have placed facilities under the quality assurance rule; (6) not properly classifying 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) since 1996, DOE has taken 33 enforcement actions and assessed more than $1.8 million in penalties; (8) DOE has concluded that the enforcement program is a valuable tool for increasing the emphasis on nuclear safety; (9) GAO's analysis indicates that the program makes nuclear safety issues more visible, places additional emphasis on corrective action, and is a relatively independent and objective approach to ensuring safe nuclear practices; (10) of the $1.8 million in assessed penalties, certain nonprofit contractors did not pay about $605,000, or 33 percent, because they are exempt from civil penalties; (11) although DOE recommended in March 1999 that the statutory exemption be continued and expanded to include all nonprofit contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers, the exemption may no longer be needed; (12) DOE cited three reasons for continuing the exemption: (a) nonprofit contractors' unwillingness to put their assets at risk for civil penalties; (b) the effectiveness of existing contract mechanisms; and (c) consistency with other regulatory agencies' treatment of nonprofit organizations; (13) however, nonprofit contractors now have contract-related fees available that could be used to pay penalties, contract mechanisms have not been sufficient to address safety-related problems, and, in contrast to DOE, other regulatory agencies do collect penalties from nonprofit organizations; and (14) because DOE is not externally regulated for nuclear safety, it must rely on its own system of oversight and controls to hold its contractors accountable.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (H.R. 6) includes Title VI, Subtitle A, Price-Anderson Act Amendments. This subtitle, to be cited as the Price-Anderson Amendments Act of 2005, extends the indemnification of DOE contractors until December 31, 2025. As GAO recommended, the act also eliminates the statutory and administrative exemptions from paying civil penalties for violating nuclear safety rules. Instead, for not-for-profit contractors, the total amount of civil penalties paid may not exceed the total fees paid within the year under the relevant contract. H.R. 6 was signed by the President on August 8, 2005.

    Matter: To ensure that both nonprofit and for-profit contractors are held fully accountable for meeting nuclear safety requirements, Congress should consider eliminating the statutory and administrative exemptions from paying civil penalties for violating nuclear safety rules.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE issued an interim final rule in October 2000 for 10 C.F.R. Part 830, Nuclear Safety Management, to establish new nuclear safety requirements and to complete the rulemaking process started in 1991. The final rule was issued on January 10, 2001 and was effective February 9, 2001.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen DOE's nuclear safety enforcement program, the Secretary of Energy should expeditiously complete the process of issuing enforceable rules covering important nuclear safety requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 1999, DOE's Office of Enforcement and Investigation issued clarifying guidance to DOE field office and contractor coordinators on the facilities to be covered by the quality assurance rule.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen DOE's nuclear safety enforcement program, the Secretary of Energy should ensure that field locations are properly following DOE's guidance in determining which facilities must comply with the nuclear safety rule on quality assurance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its December 1999 letters to OMB and the Congress, DOE stated that it was reconsidering various recommendations to the Congress that would allow for the payment of civil penalties by nonprofit contractors in amounts that do not exceed performance fees. Although DOE stated in its testimony before the House Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Energy, on March 22, 2001, that the Department generally supported the proposed legislation to remove the exemption for non-profit contractors and repeal DOE's statutory authority to grant automatic remission of civil penalties, DOE does not intend to take actions to eliminate the administrative exemption, but will wait for Congress to enact legislation.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen DOE's nuclear safety enforcement program, the Secretary of Energy should eliminate the administrative exemption from paying civil penalties for violations of nuclear safety rules that DOE granted to nonprofit educational institutions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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