ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An independent safety panel that provides oversight of some of the nation's highest risk nuclear facilities voiced concerns Tuesday that new federal policies could limit inspections and curtail access to key information.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board peppered Energy Department officials with questions about the intent of the policies during a public hearing in Washington.
Safety board staff members testified that they have had difficulties accessing information since May, when the change was adopted. Some of the information involved a worker complaint at Los Alamos and documents related to safety challenges at Los Alamos' plutonium facility, they said.
More meetings are planned but department officials denied they are changing their approach to safety and rebuffed calls by board members and watchdog groups to put the policies on hold.
Board member Joyce Connery said independent reviews are key as the nation's nuclear complex grapples with aging infrastructure, a changing workforce and pressure to ramp up production of key components for the nation's arsenal.
"This seems to be the perfect storm for accidents to happen, and this is a time where we should be doubling down on our efforts on nuclear safety," she said.
Department officials characterized the changes as benign, but critics pointed to instructions from Congress that call for the board to interact with the agency early in the process when it comes to designing and building nuclear facilities.
"The same should be true with orders and regulations that deal with safety," Connery said. "Asking for somebody's opinion after a decision has been made by definition leads to an uninformed decision."
Congress established the board in 1988 in response to growing health and safety concerns at certain nuclear sites.
In recent years, the board has highlighted numerous safety violations at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the once-secret facility in New Mexico that helped develop the atomic bomb. The problems included the mishandling of plutonium and instances of worker contamination.
The board also monitors the federal government's only underground nuclear waste repository, which was forced in 2014 to shut down for nearly three years following a radiation release caused by an improperly packed container of waste shipped from Los Alamos.
The incident triggered investigations that revealed mismanagement, lax oversight and failure to follow existing policies.
Board Chairman Bruce Hamilton said there's evidence that the policy changes have been simmering within the Energy Department for over a decade, spanning three different presidential administrations. The order was pushed through without formal comments from the board, he said.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, said the department's nuclear activities are largely unregulated by state or other federal agencies. He is among those who recently pushed to ensure the board has the budget needed to continue monitoring nuclear facilities.
"History has shown the department cannot be blindly trusted to regulate itself," Udall said in an email to The Associated Press.