Nuclear Safety: Department of Energy Needs to Strengthen Its Independent Oversight of Nuclear Facilities and Operations

GAO-09-61 Published: Oct 23, 2008. Publicly Released: Nov 18, 2008.
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Highlights

The Department of Energy (DOE) oversees contractors that operate more than 200 "high-hazard" nuclear facilities, where an accident could have serious consequences for workers and the public. DOE is charged with regulating the safety of these facilities. A key part of DOE's self-regulation is the Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS), which develops, oversees, and helps enforce nuclear safety policies. This is the only DOE safety office intended to be independent of the program offices, which carry out mission responsibilities. This report examines (1) the extent to which HSS meets GAO's elements of effective independent nuclear safety oversight and (2) the factors contributing to any identified shortcomings with respect to these elements. GAO reviewed relevant DOE policies, interviewed officials and outside safety experts, and surveyed DOE sites to determine the number and status of nuclear facilities. GAO also assessed oversight practices against the criteria for independent oversight GAO developed based on a series of reports on DOE nuclear safety and discussions with nuclear safety experts.

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Recommendations

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
If the Secretary of Energy does not take appropriate actions on our recommendations, the Congress may wish to consider permanently establishing in law the responsibilities of HSS as noted above with respect to nuclear safety or shifting DOE to external regulation by providing the resources and authority to the Safety Board to oversee all DOE nuclear facilities and to enforce DOE nuclear safety rules and directives.
Closed - Implemented
DOE has taken appropriate actions to implement the report recommendations. As a result, the objective of this matter for consideration has been achieved.
If the Secretary of Energy does not take appropriate actions on our recommendations, the Congress may wish to consider permanently establishing in law the responsibilities of HSS as noted above with respect to nuclear safety or shifting DOE to external regulation by providing the resources and authority to NRC to externally regulate all or just the newly constructed DOE nuclear facilities.
Closed - Implemented
DOE has taken appropriate actions to implement the report recommendations. As a result, the objective of this matter for consideration has been achieved.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to review the safety basis for new nuclear facilities and significant modifications to existing facilities to ensure there are no safety concerns.
Closed - Implemented
Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) completed several actions in response to this recommendation. HSS Office of Enforcement developed an internal standard operating procedure for regular trending and follow-up of technical safety requirement non-compliances--the procedure was signed and dated 06/30/09. HSS Office of Independent Oversight revised its oversight protocols and its Environment Safety and Health appraisal process guide to place a higher priority for new and substantially modified nuclear facilities when developing schedules for independent oversight inspections. HSS Office of Nuclear Safety, Quality Assurance and Environment established a process for reviewing readiness review reports--documentation was issued 05/26/09. As a result of these actions, this recommendation is closed.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to monitor the safety basis status of high-hazard nuclear facilities and ensure that all such facilities operate under current nuclear safety requirements, including the appropriate use of Justifications for Continued Operations.
Closed - Implemented
Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) has completed 2 planned actions in response to this recommendation. In 2009, HSS upgraded its existing safety basis tracking database to include information including the status of Justifications for Continued Operations (JCO). Upgrades to the database included a needs assessment and a database requirements document that corrected a number technical issues that hindered the previous database. The database development, testing, and certification was completed 12/16/09. In addition, HSS revised its guide for the use of JCOs, see DOE G 424.1-1B, page C-4. These actions are responsive to our recommendation and as such the recommendation is closed-implemented.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to increase a presence at DOE sites with nuclear facilities to provide more frequent observations of nuclear safety, provide more independent information to facilitate any necessary enforcement actions, and more routine monitoring of the effectiveness of corrective actions taken in response to HSS findings of deficiency.
Closed - Implemented
Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) completed several actions in response to this recommendation. In June 2009, HSS established the Nuclear Safety Coordinating Committee to coordinate activities and facilitate the transfer of information. In July 2009, HSS Office of Independent Oversight revised its appraisal process protocols and its Environment Safety and Health appraisal process guide to enhance integration of analysis, assistance, policy, and enforcement priorities. These revisions incorporated limited scope methodologies including targeted nuclear safety inspections. These revisions also incorporated additional mechanisms for utilizing information from HSS analysis, policy, enforcement, and assistance functions to establish priorities. In August 2009, the first annual planning meeting to set priorities and areas of focus for nuclear safety inspection for 2010 was held. As a result of these actions, this recommendation is closed.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to ensure that enforcement actions are strengthened to prevent recurring violations of the nuclear safety requirements.
Closed - Implemented
In response to this recommendation, in May 2009, Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) revised its enforcement process overview and associated standard operating practices to provide enhanced flexibility in the use of consent orders and to provide for more effective use of enforcement letters, consent orders, and security level III citations as potential enforcement actions for less significant nuclear safety violations. In addition, participation by HSS Office of Enforcement in the HSS Nuclear Safety Coordinating Committee and revisions to HSS Office of Independent Oversight appraisal protocol and its Environment Safety and Health appraisal process guide also contribute to Office Enforcement actions taken in response to this recommendation. As a result of these actions, this recommendation is closed.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should take actions to strengthen HSS's independent oversight of nuclear safety. Such actions would include giving HSS the responsibilities, technical resources, and policy guidance necessary to establish public access to unclassified appraisal reports.
Closed - Implemented
In response to this recommendation, in 2009, Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) revised its website to allow unrestricted access to current HSS appraisal reports. In addition, the July 2009 revision to the HSS Office of Independent Oversight Appraisal Process Protocols included direction that, following approval, each appraisal report be placed on the HSS website, except for rare cases where the report may contain sensitive information. As a result of these actions, this recommendation is closed.

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