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Originally published July 9, 2010 at 5:01 PM | Page modified July 9, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Guest columnist

Nuclear cleanup regulation could put public at risk

The weaknesses of federal regulatory agencies have been exposed by recent high-profile accidents. Guest columnist Tom Carpenter fears the Department of Energy will reduce its oversight of cleanup at the nation's nuclear waste sites.

Special to The Times

Millions of gallons of oil gush continue to rush unabated from BP's mile-deep well in the Gulf of Mexico, and 11 workers are dead from the massive explosion that caused the biggest oil spill in decades. Weeks before this event, the news was dominated by the preventable explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners.

In both cases, the not-so surprising news was that the mine and the oil rig had abysmal records of safety violations before the explosions yet were still allowed to operate by the captive regulatory agencies.

Where is the government accountability? It is the government's job to assure that ultra-hazardous industries operate safely and responsibly.

Is nuclear next? The Department of Energy sits on the nation's biggest nuclear nightmare. Its inventories of highly radioactive and toxic wastes defy comprehension. Washingtonians are familiar with the DOE's No. 1 accomplishment, the Hanford nuclear site, which holds the lion's share of the nation's radioactive detritus. Suffice it to say that the escape of even a small fraction of such material into the environment would constitute a Chernobyl-sized catastrophe.

Last year, President Obama appointed scientist Steven Chu to head the Energy Department. Chu brought with him an apparent disdain for regulation, and a firm belief that the pesky agency overseers just get in the way of the real work. That, at least, seems to be the sentiment behind the issuance of a memorandum in March that announced the reorganization of DOE's safety oversight function.

Authored by the deputy secretary of Energy, the March 16 memo sounds all the themes and code words that precede dangerous scale-back of the regulatory function such as contractors being free to implement safety programs "in light of their situation without excessive Federal oversight or overly prescriptive departmental requirements." Regulatory actions are to happen only at the "lowest appropriate level of contractor and Federal management." The shift to self-regulation by the same contractors who stand to be penalized for wrongdoing is the standard recipe for unhappy surprises like coal mine explosion and the oil spill.

The Energy Department's memo follows a 2004 agency reorganization that abolished the health oversight office — a move protested by Govs. Chris Gregoire and Bill Richardson of New Mexico. The functions in that office were transferred to the Health, Safety and Security Administration (HSSA), run by a civil servant with no political power.

This leads to the question of what we can expect next, now that we have had a financial meltdown, a coal mine disaster, and an oil drilling explosion, all within the last two years. A nuclear disaster at a cleanup site like Hanford is to be avoided at all costs. The persistence of radioactivity in the environment for thousands of years makes large areas of land uninhabitable, and wreaks an ongoing and incalculable human health toll. Prevention, rather than reaction, to such tragedies should be driving law and policy.

Congress and the Obama Administration had better get their priorities straight and realize that the cost of rigorous and effective oversight — which must include robust legal protections and incentives for whistleblowers — is a lot cheaper than trying to clean up after the catastrophe. For the Energy Department, that means reestablishing the Office of Environment, Safety and Health, beefing up the safety inspection function and centralizing responsibility for inspection and enforcement in a robust and independent agency with the resources and capacity necessary to protect the public and workers.

The wake-up call is here. We should act.

Tom Carpenter is executive director of the Hanford Challenge.

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