Nuclear Facilities' Safety Rules Provoke Bi-partisan Criticism

The Bush administration is contradicting the will of Congress with an "unprecedented" proposal that would allow Department of Energy (DOE) contractors at nuclear facilities to violate OSHA standards, according to a recent letter written by Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

"Absolutely not true," counters Beverly Cook, DOE's assistant secretary for environment, safety and health, when asked if the department's proposal violates the will of Congress. "It is not our opinion that we are contradicting the intent of the law. We are implementing it."

The DOE proposal would replace government safety standards at nuclear facilities with individual safety and health programs written by the contractors who operate the various facilities. DOE would then inspect and enforce these safety plans, but it would not have authority to enforce OSHA standards and other safety rules not included in the contractor's submitted plan.

Cook says OSHA standards are not always appropriate or protective enough. The new proposal allows DOE to enforce safety standards appropriate to each worksite and workers will be better protected than they are presently because the department can fine violators.

While OSHA general industry and construction safety standards apply to the DOE sites, the department currently lacks authority to enforce the rules. To remedy this problem, Bunning and Kennedy sponsored legislation directing DOE to promulgate health and safety standards for DOE facilities operated by contractors, and granted the department authority to assess fines against violators.

The law also granted DOE flexibility to take account of hazards peculiar to individual worksite. In their Feb. 6 letter to DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham, the senators argue DOE "has expanded the concept of flexibility to such a great extent that it undermines the purpose of the statute." The senators have asked DOE to withdraw and revise the proposal to reflect the law's intent.

"DOE's agenda is very disturbing and simply at odds with the uniform minimum safety standards which apply under OSHA to every DOE contractor that is simultaneously operating in the private sector," said Richard Miller, senior policy analyst at the Government Accountability Project. "What makes these contractors so special when they come to DOE?"

The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) believes that with changes, the proposed rule has the potential to improve the health and safety of DOE workers. Among the changes to the proposed rule suggested by AIHA are the addition of an explicit statement that conformance to applicable OSHA standards and case law interpretations should be a minimum requirement.

Cook said DOE is currently reviewing public comments to its proposal. A final rule will be issued will be issued "several months down the road," she said.

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