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  For nearly half a century, the Department of Energy (DOE) and its predecessor agencies operated the nation's defense nuclear weapons complex without independent external oversight. In the late 1980's, it became increasingly clear to members of Congress that significant public health and safety issues had accumulated at many of the aging facilities in the weapons complex. As an outgrowth of these concerns, Congress created the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in 1988 as an independent oversight organization within the Executive Branch charged with providing advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Energy "to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety" at DOE's defense nuclear facilities.

Broadly speaking, the Board is responsible for independent oversight of all activities affecting nuclear safety within DOE's nuclear weapons complex. Prior to the end of the nuclear arms race, the nuclear weapons complex concentrated on the design, manufacture, test, and maintenance of the nation's nuclear arsenal. The complex is now engaged in cleanup of contaminated sites and facilities, disassembly of nuclear weapons to achieve arms control objectives, maintenance of the smaller stockpile, and storage and disposition of excess fissionable materials.

All of these hazardous activities must be carried out in strict observance of health and safety requirements. To ensure that these safety requirements are adequate, the Board's enabling statute, 42 U.S.C. ▀ 2286 et seq., requires the Board to review and evaluate the content and implementation of DOE health and safety standards applicable to the design, construction, operation, and decommissioning of defense nuclear facilities. The Board must then recommend to the Secretary of Energy any specific measures, such as changes in the content and implementation of those standards, that the Board believes should be adopted to ensure that the public health and safety are adequately protected. The Board also is required to review the design of new defense nuclear facilities before construction begins, as well as modifications to older facilities, and to recommend changes necessary to protect health and safety. Review and advisory responsibilities of the Board continue throughout the full life cycle of facilities, including shutdown and decommissioning phases.

Congress gave the Board a variety of powers to achieve its mission. Primary among these is the power to issue a recommendation to the Secretary of Energy. although the Secretary is permitted to reject Board recommendations, in practice the Secretary has not chosen to do so over the 11 years of Board operations. In addition to recommendations, the Board may conduct investigations, issue subpoenas, hold public hearings, gather information, conduct studies, and establish reporting requirements for DOE. The Board is required by statute to report to Congress each year concerning its oversight activities, its recommendations to the Secretary of Energy, and improvements in safety achieved at defense nuclear facilities as a result of its activities.


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