Procedures for bomb plant safety weakened by revamp, GAO says

June 21, 1994|By New York Times News Service

Washington -- The ability of the Department of Energy to identify nuclear safety problems at its bomb plants and bring them to the attention of top officials was significantly reduced by a reorganization last year, a study by the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, has found.

The department contended that the reorganization under Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary had made operations more efficient and had created a more cooperative atmosphere.

But the congressional investigators said the revamp had ended the arms-length, independent position of internal safety regulators. And when safety officials disagree about a procedure or a physical problem in the weapons complex, the report said, "No overall systematic approach exists for elevating issues, and the existing methods for doing so do not insure that safety issues will always be elevated up the DOE hierarchy when necessary."

Identifying safety problems is a special challenge for the department, which is mostly self-regulated. The department acknowledged in the mid-1980s that it had lost control of its weapons-production complex and that the resulting environmental problems would cost tens of billions of dollars.

But Mrs. O'Leary said yesterday that the reorganization was helping to clean up the department's environmental and safety problems. Before, she said, "We had lots of oversight but no action as a result of the oversight. We need to get outcome as opposed to reports and studies."

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