By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow
Editor’s note: This will be the last Broken Arrow News piece written by our Scoville Fellow Luisa Kenausis, as she will be completing her fellowship in the near future. She has truly enjoyed bringing you the latest in under-reported nuclear news for the last few months. The Center will continue to produce Broken Arrow News under new authorship, so be sure to stay tuned!
Energy Department’s move to limit nuclear safety oversight draws backlash in hearing
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) is a five-person body tasked with overseeing the safety of defense-related nuclear facilities in the United States. In mid-May, the Department of Energy (DOE) published an order that board members say will restrict their ability to effectively ensure the safety of the nation’s defense nuclear facilities to workers and the public.
The new DOE order was reported on in July (and covered in Broken Arrow News’s July recap), but has recently received more media attention due to a public hearing held in D.C. on Tuesday, August 28. Video recording of the three-hour hearing can be viewed on YouTube. News outlets including ProPublica, the Santa Fe New Mexican, the Daily Beast, Defense Daily, and U.S. News covered the hearing last week.
At Tuesday’s hearing, officials from the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) defended the order, saying that the changes were innocuous and necessary updates to the 17-year-old guidelines for how the DNFSB interfaces with the Energy Department. According to the NNSA chief of staff and principal deputy administrator William White, the new directive “certainly is not intended to harm” the relationship between the oversight board and DOE.
Board members pushed back, including acting chairman Bruce Hamilton, who argued that the broad restrictions outlined in the order are inconsistent with the Atomic Energy Act provisions that establish the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and its functions. Specifically, sections 311 through 322 of the Atomic Energy Act detail the structure and function of the board, including its mission: to provide recommendations to the Secretary of Energy in order to ensure “adequate protection of public health and safety at…defense nuclear facilities.”
Notably, the new DOE order defines “public health and safety” as the health and safety of “individuals located beyond the boundaries of…DOE Defense Nuclear Facilities,” a change that would block the DNFSB from overseeing the safety of workers at nuclear sites. DOE official Matthew Moury defended that definition at Tuesday’s hearing, saying that because DOE has “never defined collocated workers as members of the public,” they do not fall within the purview of the DNFSB.
The board has long considered the safety and health of workers at defense nuclear facilities among of its key oversight responsibilities. To date, half of the board’s published technical reports have focused explicitly on risks to worker safety. A technical expert for the DNFSB said Tuesday that since May, the board has already experienced difficulty accessing information relating to several potential worker safety issues as a result of the new order.
The DOE order also cuts the number of buildings that fall under the board’s oversight by 71 percent by excluding lower-level hazardous sites as well as those that are only dangerous to the health and safety of their workers, rather than the public.
Board members and nuclear watchdog groups have sharply criticized the DOE directive for weakening oversight of worker safety in nuclear facilities. According to Greg Mello, director of nuclear watchdog the Los Alamos Study Group, the DOE order “is an existential danger to the board and to nuclear workers. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been made sick making nuclear weapons, and if that is not enough proof that we need external oversight, I don’t know what is.”
China to join Russian military drills this week
This week, Chinese forces will join the Russian military in their largest-scale joint exercise to date, and one of the largest Russian military exercises since the 1980s. The news was reported in late August.
According to an anonymous Pentagon official who reportedly spoke with the Washington Free Beacon, the upcoming Vostok-2018 exercises will be closely monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies because they are expected to include the simulated use of nuclear weapons. This information was repeated in a Business Insider article which claims Russia is “preparing for a nuclear war.” Since then, American reporting on the upcoming exercises has emphasized the potential nuclear aspect of the drills.
Putting aside legitimate questions about whether the Washington Free Beacon’s article accurately represents a real statement by a Pentagon official, it is not clear what exactly is meant by “simulated” nuclear use, and such framing should be taken with a grain of salt. American analysts often assert that Russia’s large-scale military exercises regularly include the simulated use of nuclear weapons, but such claims are not necessarily supported by evidence. For instance, an exercise involving bomber aircraft that are capable of delivering nuclear weapons (as well as conventional weapons) may be interpreted by Washington as “simulated nuclear use,” even if the bombers are being used to practice a non-nuclear mission.
Russia has annually held the Vostok, or “East,” military drills for decades. The Vostok exercises take place in the Russian Far East and Siberia. According to a Twitter thread by Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, China’s participation in this year’s exercise is an important milestone because “Vostok drills are aimed at countering foreign invasions and addressing military threats for Siberia and the Far East. China was among potential adversaries for many years. Now Moscow’s message is that it doesn’t view Beijing as an adversary anymore.”
Japanese students submit nuclear abolition petition to United Nations
Last week, a group of twenty Japanese high school students acting as “peace messengers” visited the United Nations in Geneva to submit a petition calling to abolish nuclear weapons. The students have been working on the petition for the last year and managed to collect about 110,000 signatures before presenting it to the UN, urging the body to do more to achieve a world without nuclear weapons.
On Monday, August 27, the students spoke in front of about 60 foreign diplomats, sharing the stories of victims and survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The timing of the event, which was hosted by the Japanese delegation to the UN, coincided with meetings of the Conference on Disarmament that took place last week.
The students are representatives of an organization called Kokosei Heiwa Taishi, or “High School Student Peace Ambassadors.” Each year since 2014, the group has submitted a petition for the abolition of nuclear weapons to the UN during the Conference on Disarmament.
Many of the students involved in this year’s effort have personal connections to the issue, including seventeen-year-old Sawa Yamanishi, whose grandmother survived the bombing of Nagasaki. In a speech, Yamanishi said, “I don’t want many people to be tortured, as so many were 73 years ago.”