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Department of Energy: External Regulation Savings in Safety and Health Activities at DOE Science Laboratories

GAO-03-633R Published: May 14, 2003. Publicly Released: May 14, 2003.
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The Department of Energy (DOE) is unusual among federal agencies in that it regulates and inspects its own facilities to protect the safety and health of its workers and of the communities surrounding its vast complex of research laboratories. With few exceptions, all other federal facilities must comply with national standards set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for nuclear safety and by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for worker safety and health. DOE asserts that, for the most part, its safety and health standards meet or exceed those promulgated for facilities regulated by NRC and OSHA. At DOE's 10 science laboratories, which are run by management and operating (M&O) contractors, the department and its contractors use a contract administration process to select standards appropriate to current worker hazards and public safety issues. Both DOE and the M&O contractors are involved in safety and health activities. DOE's field offices, most of which are located at the laboratories, provide continuous safety and health oversight of the M&O contractors. DOE headquarters offices provide policy guidance to the field offices and also conduct some oversight of the laboratories. Safety and health personnel working for the M&O contractors take actions to comply with the safety and health standards and conduct their own self-assessment activities. DOE's field offices track contract compliance through direct observations and through the review of safety and health reports and other related information provided by the M&O contractors. Over a decade ago, DOE began considering whether to end self-regulation of its facilities to improve safety and public trust in the department, among other reasons. However, after much study, the department concluded that the costs of shifting to external regulation would exceed the potential benefits of doing so. We have taken a position different from DOE. For example, in a 2002 report, we observed that external regulatory agencies' "greater independence, coupled with use of national nuclear and worker safety standards and enforcement powers, would make them more cost-effective regulators (than DOE)." In addition, any resource savings to the department in shifting to external regulation could potentially be redirected to other mission priorities. The conference report accompanying the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2002 directed DOE to prepare an implementation plan for shifting the department's science laboratories to external regulation. In July 2002, DOE presented a plan that was one month late and lacked important information. A subsequent committee report accompanying the 2003 appropriations bill criticized DOE for providing the "grossly inadequate" plan. This report concluded that DOE "cannot be relied upon to provide accurate and objective information in response to Committee requests for information on this issue." Congress therefore requested us to determine (1) how much DOE spends on safety and health activities at its science laboratories and (2) how much DOE might save after shifting to external regulation of these facilities.

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