Don't let foxes guard our nuclear henhouse

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In addition to confusing the “adequate protection standard”, the NDAA would mandate that “performance-based oversight” replace “transactional oversight” for regulators. While this probably sounds like bureaucratic gibber jabber to most citizens, the difference is dramatic. Right now nuclear oversight is “transactional” meaning that it prescribes best practices for contractors to follow in the hopes of avoiding an accident. “Performance-based” oversight is the style used by the National Transportation Safety Board, which would only investigate an airline’s safety procedures after a plane crash, based on an airline’s performance. Do Chairman McKeon (R-Calif.) and the rest of the Armed Services Committee really only want oversight after an accident at a nuclear weapons site? How will they rationalize this decision to the impacted community?

Another onerous provision of the NDAA would degrade the independent nature of oversight organizations such as the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board which are tasked with protecting communities and workers alike. The bill would make these previously independent agencies subservient to the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) while conducting oversight activities. The stunning thing about this is that the NNSA is already free to disregard advice offered by agencies such as the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The NDAA’s new requirement would go further and allow the Undersecretary for Nuclear Security (a position named for their oversight of nuclear weapons, not their responsibility for community security) to directly interfere in investigations.

Finally, the NDAA continues the trend toward allowing our nation’s nuclear weapons labs to oversee themselves. Over the course of several House Armed Services Committee hearings this year, Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) invited private contractors from laboratories around the nuclear complex to complain about the fact that they face federal oversight. Now Congress wants to codify these complaints, requiring that contractors themselves determine how to implement “performance-based” safety regulations.

The bottom line for these contractors is profit, not community safety and they require appropriate oversight. We ought not let foxes guard our nuclear henhouses. We saw the result in Fukishima, Japan when nuclear oversight took a backseat to profits.

Chairman McKeon must do everything in his power to maintain our current independent, transactional oversight system at nuclear weapons facilities. Americans cannot afford to wait until after an accident to examine safety regulations at nuclear weapons facilities.

Katherine M. Fuchs is program director at the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability