Energy Department's Nuclear-Safety Record Called "Abominable"

March 21, 2000

It is 12 years and counting since Congress passed a law requiring contractors running and cleaning up federal nuclear weapons plants and labs to do so in a manner to protect workers and the public from radiation hazards. The Department of Energy was given the responsibility of setting safety standards and levying fines or other penalties for those which didn't comply.

The department, however, still hasn't put all the rules in place. It has finalized only two of the 11 rules envisioned as necessary to carry out the intent of Congress.

  • The contractors realize $16 billion a year for jobs ranging from nuclear weapons maintenance to disposing of radioactive nuclear waste.
  • So far, the department has levied $3 million in fines for safety violations.
  • The contractors contend that more rules would mean more bureaucratic distractions, more paperwork and less attention for true safety initiatives.
  • Indeed, DOE officials insist existing rules -- coupled with safety orders built into all DOE contracts, give the agency enough power to ensure safety.

Agency officials concede that much of the delay stems from internal debate over how to structure them. Should they allow contractors flexibility in meeting safety goals? Should different facilities face the same standards?

Meanwhile, patience is growing short in Congress. Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.) fumes that the department's record in promulgating the rules is "abominable."

Source: Peter Eisler, "Safety Over a Barrel," USA Today, March 20, 2000.

 

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