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Democrat senators from New Mexico add provisions to stop reorganizing of federal oversight agency for nuclear activities.

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Two U.S. senators from New Mexico are opposed to a proposal that would reduce staff at the headquarters of a federal board that oversees nuclear activities across the country.

Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall (D-NM) wrote a joint statement and proposed two provisions they said they hoped would retain the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) staffing levels and robustness of its oversight.

The provisions would be added to the Fiscal Year 2019 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, intending to block a proposed reorganization plan suggested by DNFSB Acting Chairman Bruce Hamilton.

The DNFSB is a five-member independent federal agency that oversees the Department of Energy’s defense nuclear facilities.

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The board oversees all of New Mexico’s national laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

Hamilton’s proposal would reduce staff at the Board’s Washington, D.C. headquarters by 46 percent, while increasing resident inspectors by 80 percent at defense nuclear facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The proposed changes would also establish two new field offices in Albuquerque and Las Vegas, Nevada, providing full-time coverage of Sandia National Laboratories, WIPP, the Nevada National Security Site, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Idaho National Laboratory.

The move came in response to “numerous” studies and critiques about the Board’s effectiveness in recent years, read an Aug. 15 DNFSB news release.

The changes, if approved, would go into effect on Oct. 1.

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"Today, the Board will begin a process of change that is long overdue,” Hamilton said on the day of the announcement of the changes. “In recent years, the Department of Energy has changed its processes, procedures and organization, and we have been slow to adapt.”

He said the proposal could provide greater oversight in the field, while operating a “leaner” headquarters.

“This restructuring will improve our safety focus and independent oversight priorities in the field, while making our headquarters organization leaner to make us more responsive in the execution of our mission,” Hamilton said.

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But Udall and Heinrich worried that changes could reduce the agency’s effectiveness, by cutting its personnel.

They also sought to suspend a DOE order issued in May that the senators said restricted the amount of information the DNFSB could request from the Department.

The provisions called for blocking any federal funds from being used in the reorganization unless specifically authorized by law, while suspending the order and calling for the DOE to brief Congress on its information-sharing policy within 30 days.

“The DNFSB provides essential oversight to maintain safety for workers at New Mexico’s national security labs, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, and the surrounding communities,” read Udall and Heinrich’s joint statement.

“Our provisions will help keep the DNFSB a strong and independent watchdog for the safety of New Mexicans and the long-term health of our DOE facilities.”

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They said the proposed reorganization was part of a continuing pattern by the administration of President Donald Trump to weaken nuclear oversight.

“With the inclusion of our measure regarding the DNFSB’s proposed reorganization, this bill prohibits the board’s leadership from moving forward with such a sweeping proposal – which would likely result in staff reductions – unless Congress has vetted and authorized it,” Udall and Heinrich wrote.

“This prohibition, which guarantees Congress’ oversight role over the board, is especially important given the Trump administration’s previous efforts to weaken the DNFSB and even terminate the board entirely.”

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The changes were also intended to allow Congress to further analyze the Board ahead of any efforts to reorganize.

“And this bill also demonstrates that Congress shares the widespread concerns about DOE’s information sharing order, which, on its face, appears to restrict the amount of information the board can access for its critical safety oversight work at DOE sites,” Udall and Heinrich wrote.

“We believe the DOE Order should be halted until stakeholders are assured there will be no reduction in safety, and we will do everything we can to ensure there is an active safety watchdog overseeing DOE sites in New Mexico and across the country.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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