Alliance for Nuclear Accountability
Energy and Power
Subcommittee of Commerce
Energy and Environment
Subcommittee of Science
US House of Representatives
July 13, 1999
Chairman Barton, Chairman Calvert, and Members of the Committees, I appreciate this opportunity to appear before you today to discuss efforts to reorganize the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons work.
The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability is a coalition of 29 national, regional, and local organizations around the country, working on nuclear weapons issues. Many of our member groups are local, community-based organizations living next door to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) nuclear weapons facilities. We have a long history of monitoring the Department’s activities. While as a network we have been in existence for 12 years, some of our member groups have been at this business even longer. What brought all of our groups together was a shared realization that activities at the nuclear weapons facilities were harming our people, our environment, and contributing to the spread of nuclear weapons information and technology around the world.
What we’ve seen over the decades is a continuing pattern of disregard for public and worker safety and environmental law, combined with the use of "national security" as a shield to prevent public access to health, environmental, and safety information. The current wave of espionage scandals confirms what many believed — that the weapons program is adept at keeping secrets — from the American people.
In the past 50 years the US nuclear weapons program exposed workers to fatal doses of radiation, gave others cancer, used entire populations of the US as human guinea pigs, dumped radioactive waste into unlined trenches, poisoned streams and ground water, created miles of contaminated soil, and compiled a staggering record of environmental abuses. Thanks to work by citizen groups and by the Congress, often hand in hand with local media and local officials, the weapons program has slowly become more accountable to environmental regulation and health implications of weapons work are coming to light.
The Federal Facilities Compliance Act authored by the Commerce Committee was a watershed moment in which many of the activities of DOE were required to comply with Federal environmental law and given a time frame to achieve compliance. Various oversight hearings and actions have highlighted safety concerns throughout the complex, and there has been a continual stream of governmental and non-governmental reports on issues ranging from cleanup needs to nonproliferation and weapons development.
The Department has, in part, become more accountable to the public and runs its operations in a more environmentally responsible manner because of external oversight and public scrutiny. It is not perfect, it has a long way to go, and some sites are better than others. But it does, finally, have forces both within and outside of the Department working to make it adhere to worker safety requirements and environmental concerns.
We see this attempt to create a new, semi-autonomous weapons program, as a chilling return to the darker days of the past, when weapons work was done unchecked by environmental consequences, regulation, and public scrutiny. We have concerns about several key areas including public and worker safety, environmental protection, non-proliferation, and secrecy and public accountability, which I will go into detail below. We also have specific problems with both the House and Senate proposed reform efforts.
First, a general statement about the concept. No one would accuse us of being soft on DOE. In fact, we have been its most fervent critic, and we have often irked, annoyed, and infuriated the top management of the agency. We agree with much of what was in the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) report about the mismanagement and the culture of arrogance at headquarters and the laboratories. This mismanagement is by no means limited to the Defense Programs line within DOE. It is rampant throughout the Department. Indeed, one of the major problems at DOE is an entrenched bureaucracy with little incentive to change, and the ability to wait out any major reform efforts.
However, with that being said, we feel that the current reform proposals are a case of the cure being worse than the disease. We are at a loss as to why the punishment for insubordination, arrogance, and an unwillingness to take direction from above is to make the weapons program its own, semi-autonomous, agency. It is akin to parents, faced with a recalcitrant teenager, responding by renovating the basement and setting him up with a phone, TV, separate entrance and large allowance. What is the message here?
In reading the PFIAB report, references are made to examples of other agencies, such as the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, that the PFIAB believes operate better and more effectively by being semi-autonomous. We note, however, that none of these examples run high hazard facilities that generate radioactive waste and routinely deal with plutonium, the most lethal material in the world. DOE and the weapons program are unique in that regard and as such need a unique, well-crafted, and measured response.
Public and Worker Safety
We are particularly concerned that current proposals do not fully appreciate the highly hazardous nature of the work being done at many of these facilities. In fact, some have been quoted as believing that compliance with worker and public safety requirements is a hindrance to effective weapons work. This attitude, which is prevalent at the national weapons labs, is precisely the reason there have been such widespread and continuing problems with worker safety. Just last week there was another accident at the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building (CMR) at the Los Alamos National Lab (LANL), releasing radioactive fumes and contaminating a room. This echoes an accident at the same building in November of 1996, in which an oven exploded, sending a potentially lethal spray of shrapnel around the room. There have been many accidents, accidental releases of radiation, and exposures of workers that plague the work at the labs. Yet the labs continue to resist effective oversight and enforcement of safety procedures and environmental compliance.
To fully appreciate the complexities of worker and pubic safety at the weapons facilities, it must be understood that for most activities and materials, DOE is self-regulated. The full implications of this self-regulation are sometimes hard to perceive. All non-DOE nuclear facilities are regulated either by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) or Occupational Safety and Health Administration, (OSHA ) or both. But at DOE facilities, OSHA does not have jurisdiction or authority. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has no authority over fissile materials and only regulates the DOE superfund sites that have other contamination. States have little, if any, jurisdiction. One DOE self-audit revealed 40,000 OSHA violations at the Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) alone.
The litany of accidents at the labs is endless. A few examples at Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) in California: March ‘99 — a mislabeled container of waste was sent to a landfill without pre-treatment; April ’98 — a chemist receives burns to his head when an improperly stored acid mixture exploded; May-Dec. ‘97 over 25 plutonium criticality violations in Building 332, with reports detailing chronic violations of safety limits. At the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico: May ‘99 — lab cited for continued safety problems in the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building (and in June of this year, had another accident in the building); June ’98 — illegal storage of gaseous chemicals; November ‘96 — explosion in the CMR building. At the Sandia lab, also in New Mexico, operator failure caused an unplanned power surge and subsequent automatic shutdown of the lab’s Annular Core Research reactor. The operators then compounded the error by immediately restarting the reactor and then destroying a portion of the log in an attempt to cover up the event.
In all of these repeated accidents there are consistent themes — failure to follow procedures and failure to comply with safety requirements. In one instance, the report of the criticality violations at LLNL includes the possibility that some of the violations were intentionally done to get the job completed faster.
Office of Environment, Safety, and Health
How does worker and public safety, as well as environmental compliance, get reported, evaluated, and enforced, within the DOE structure? The Office of Environment, Safety, and Health, (E,S&H) which reports directly to the Secretary of Energy, has oversight and enforcement authority. Both the House and Senate proposals would change that, and subsume such functions under the new line or agency. As it is, enforcement is often weak and the Office of E,S&H does not have enough teeth to be effective. However, it is at least independent and not intimately linked to the mission of Defense Programs. Moving environment, safety, and health oversight and enforcement functions into the line program, whose chief goal is to research and produce nuclear weapons, would result in a complete loss of protection for workers from any independent oversight. Management in the new organization would have, as its goal, completion of its primary mission at the lowest possible cost — worker and public safety, as well as environmental regulation, would be the bottom of the pecking order.
Should reform happen in this area? Indeed, the Office of Environment, Safety, and Health needs to be made stronger, have more enforcement authority, and a bigger budget. It needs to be a separate, independent office that has enforcement over all other parts of DOE. Contractor accountability must be strengthened and enforcement against contractors whose actions are irresponsible, negligent, and occasionally unlawful, must be swift and effective. Congress should revisit the issue of whether any contractor, even a non-profit contractor, should be exempt from paying fines resulting from enforcement actions.
One of the worse things about the proposal for reform of DOE’s Defense Programs operations is the inclusion of E,S&H operations within the program line. This places the very people who do not like environmental or safety regulations, who chaff against following safety procedures, and who consider these activities of the lowest priority, in charge of running these same environment, safety, and health operations. 50 years of experience has taught us that weapons production is incompatible with self-monitoring of environmental and safety practices. The fox should not be given the keys to the chicken coop.
We are particularly concerned about the impact on environmental protection and cleanup activities of the various legislative proposals. Most of the facilities in the DOE complex are in the cleanup program, on a track, albeit a lengthy one, for closure, cleanup, and return to full or partial civilian use. The labs and production sites, however, are going to continue to generate waste, risk contaminating the environment, and put workers and the public at risk for the foreseeable future. Structurally, there are several problems and many large question marks about the proposals for reforming the weapons program and its relationship to fissile material disposition, waste management, and restoration activities.
Senator Rudman stated that his committee did not look at the environmental management program in their review. The Environmental Management (EM) program is indeed complex and covers a wide variety of functions that one would not readily attribute to a cleanup program. The Senate proposal put forth by Senators Domenici, Kyl, and others, would put the new Agency for Nuclear Stewardship in charge of all programs and activities related to, among other things, non-proliferation and fissile materials disposition. It allows the Secretary of Energy to exempt certain environmental restoration and waste management responsibilities best carried about by other program lines from the new agency. The House versions, section 3165 of HR. 1401, and HR 2032, give the newly elevated weapons program authority over environment, safety, and health functions. Both of these proposals raise questions about who is responsible for management and storage of fissile material currently under control of the EM program, and who will manage and pay for the costs of future generated waste.
Currently, plutonium-contaminated waste (transuranic, or TRU waste) generated by LANL is expected to go to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, a facility that is run and paid for by the Office of Waste Management within the EM program. A pilot charge-back program has begun within DOE, but under the new structures proposed, it is unclear how Defense Programs (or a renamed Agency for Nuclear Stewardship, ANS) would either manage its TRU waste, arrange for transport to WIPP, determine whose order, requirements or regulations it was obliged to follow, or budget for payment. Will the weapons program be allowed to continue to generate waste and contaminate facilities without budgeting for the waste management or cleanup in mission budgets? No private corporation allows a waste-generating portion of its company to pass these expenses on to the general accounts. In addition to the question of funding and budget is a question of operations. Will ongoing waste management responsibility continue to lie with the EM program, or will entire new waste management offices and mini-EM programs be developed within the new agency? The current proposals do not address these crucial issues, and the Senate proposal, which specifies that no other part of DOE shall have any authority over the new agency, sets up a situation where the ANS could generate waste with impunity. Even those of us with garbage service have to package our garbage appropriately.
The issue of excess fissile material, located at several EM sites, raises both management concerns and security problems. The current proposals have an independent security function within the weapons program that has security jurisdiction only over weapons program activities. This leaves fissile material at EM sites in a security vacuum. Such a structure would necessitate recreating a security structure under EM, to protect EM security risks. This proliferation of offices and management responsibilities is precisely the problem these reform efforts were trying to avoid. Security is a DOE-wide issue, not just a weapons program issue.
Additionally, there are questions of jurisdiction over fissile materials that have been declared excess to the stockpile. Currently these are managed and stored by the Environmental Management program, while the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition does the planning for the eventual disposition of the material. Under the Senate proposal, the Fissile Materials Disposition program would be included in the new Agency for Nuclear Stewardship, yet this program does not own any facilities, storage sites, or treatment capacity. The proposal to move fissile materials work into the new agency may well leave orphan plutonium around the sites, as EM no longer has jurisdiction and the new agency has no place to put the material.
The weapons program has an equally bad record of compliance with environmental laws as it does with worker safety requirements. Often the attitude is that environmental protection doesn’t matter or is not a high priority. Again, the Office of Environment, Safety, and Health is tasked with enforcement and oversight, as much of DOE’s work does not fall under outside agency jurisdiction. The result of self-regulation is evident in the massive contamination throughout the complex. Weapons production and research work, which is not on a track to cleanup and closure, but will continue being a waste generator and a risk to the public, needs strong, clear, and forceful independent oversight. Environmental compliance should not be relegated to a low-level office with a weapons production mission.
Nonproliferation and Security
Recent reports of espionage, leaked material, and poor security at the labs has brought national focus on the problem of nuclear proliferation and the expanding nuclear programs of other countries. The attention of Congress and the Administration has been on improving security and counterintelligence at the labs and ensuring US nuclear weapons secrets are safe. At the same time, two things are happening that undermine these efforts and make the barrier to nuclear weapons technology less like a wall and more like cheesecloth.
The ongoing nuclear weapons research and design program and continued efforts to advance reprocessing technologies both contribute to worldwide nuclear risks. The science-based stockpile stewardship program emphasizes research, particularly joint research with other nations, and presentations at public conferences, as a way of proving our continued scientific edge in the nuclear arena. From a human nature point of view this is completely understandable. Now that weapons tests are no longer the ultimate arbiter of success, weapons scientists, who have long labored in the dark of classified research and away from the praise and acknowledgement of their efforts by the rest of the research community, wish to be brought more into the public light. But this approach increases the availability of nuclear weapons information and dances on the edge of the classified boundary.
Joint research projects, particularly on the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a laser facility being built at LLNL, emphasize cooperative, open research with a variety of countries, and Britain recently announced it would be "investing" in the NIF. The National Ignition Facility bills itself as intended to further understanding of the inner complexities of a nuclear weapon explosion.
Joint research projects and a growing international community of weapons scientists is not a recent phenomenon. Collaboration between the U.S. and Soviet weapons labs pre-dates the end of the Cold War. More recently, in 1995, joint controlled-fusion experiments have been conducted at both the US. and Russian laboratories. A 1994 Washington Post article reported that in order to persuade Chinese military leaders to halt underground testing, the US offered to provide China with computers that could aid in nuclear explosion simulations.
It is also not a new phenomenon that the lab scientists dislike restrictions on their work and that the arrogance referred to by the PFIAB expresses itself as a belief that the labs are above the law. In a 1996 Bulletin of Atomic Scientist article, Kathleen Bailey, a senior fellow at the Center for Security and Technology Studies at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory wrote: "[W]hile it is often useful for laws to try to shape the behavior of mankind, there are some realms in which laws are destined to fail. That is why those responsible for the security of the United States, regardless of the political perspective of the administration in power, have repeatedly determined that the possession of nuclear weapons and a commitment to their potential use — as implied by deterrence — is in the best interests of Americans. International law or advisory opinions by the World Court are unlikely to change that. (emphasis added).
These types of attitudes emphasize that in order to ensure nonproliferation efforts have the authority they need, nonproliferation work cannot be part and parcel of a weapons agency, but needs an independent voice.
It is ironic that while Congress is trying to seal the ark of nuclear weapons against theft, it is at the same time handing out the technological tools to weapons programs under the guise of waste management. The greatest stumbling block to would-be proliferants is access to fissile materials. Reprocessing, the procedure of separating plutonium or uranium from spent nuclear fuel, is undergoing a resurgence in this country, despite our purported policy against reprocessing, and our efforts to convince other nations to forgo it. We have pyroprocessing (electrometallurgical processing) at Argonne West in Idaho, and a new push for accelerator transmutation of waste (ATW) that uses pyroprocessing technology in part. Both of these processes have the advantage, to proliferators, of being smaller and harder to detect than traditional PUREX processes used at the Savannah River Site and Hanford. According to the National Academy of Sciences, while not intended for the production of fissile materials, both processes could be easily modified, to produce weapons grade material. Interestingly, the ATW system is being pushed by Senator Domenici, the same architect of DOE reform, who is concerned about making DOE more secure but seems to have little qualms about the impacts of dual-use technology.
There are other areas of concern as well. For example, the Office of Fissile Materials recently began using money to fund joint work with Russia in the field of High Temperature Gas Reactors. Yet the Cox Committee report raised concerns about that very technology as being dual-use and benefiting Russian nuclear weapons programs.
The reality of proliferation problems in many areas of DOE, as well as the inability of the weapons program to be unbiased critics of its own programs, requires maintaining a separate, independent, nonproliferation office. Folding nonproliferation into the new weapons agency, while it may appear to be a streamlining of programs, would result in an office that can’t effectively report, critique, or analyze proliferation risks without biting the hand that feeds it. Additionally, nonproliferation is a Department-wide concern, particularly in the area of multi-use technologies that may be of use to aspiring nuclear-capable states. If it is buried in a weapons agency, nonproliferation analysis will not have the capacity to address all of the concerns in existence, nor will it get adequate attention.
Secrecy and Public Accountability
It is difficult, in the current climate, to talk about the need for openness. The tendency is to lock the door as tightly as possible, in the light of what may have been lost. However, we urge you to tread carefully in this area. Ironically, the weapons production program has been successful in some areas of secrecy — keeping crucial health and environment-related information from the public. In the pursuit of national security goals, environmental and safety standards were often left by the wayside, and secrecy was not always used for noble purposes.
As an example, let me tell you about how one of our member groups, the Fernald Residents for Environment, Safety, and Health got its start. The President, Lisa Crawford, lives near the Fernald site, known then as the Feed Materials Production Center, which processed uranium. The local community didn’t know exactly what went on there, and it was assumed to be a pet food producer — the site even painted its water tower in a fashion very similar to Purina’s trademark checkerboard. Lisa only discovered the true function of the plant when she came home from work to find men in radiation protection suits climbing out of her well. The plant had contaminated all of the drinking water supply in the surrounding area with uranium. This galvanized the community, but only through protracted lawsuits and endless Freedom of Information Act requests, where they able to know the truth.
The Department has changed since then, but it still remains difficult if not impossible to get data from certain sectors, specifically Defense Programs. We are not asking for the secrets to nuclear weapons design, we are asking for the truth about health and environmental impacts. Often local watchdog groups, public officials, and local reporters are the first line of defense in exposing problems at DOE sites. Public accountability is the best ensurer of proper behavior. Closing the doors and retreating into a swath of darkness will only make the labs more insular, less caring, and less responsible.
In conclusion we urge the Committees and Congress to take a closer look at the complications that may be created by a hasty move to change. Change without due consideration of the many ripple effects could do more harm than good. In particular we urge the Committees to carefully considered key areas of worker and public safety, environmental protection, non-proliferation, and secrecy and public accountability.