updated 1/28/2004 9:41:44 PM ET 2004-01-29T02:41:44

The Bush administration is looking at waiving some current government safety requirements at federal nuclear facilities if contractors don’t like them — after Congress directed it to start fining contractors for violations.

Critics contend that long-established government standards at more than two dozen Energy Department nuclear weapons plants and research labs could become unenforceable under the proposal. Energy Department officials say the intent is to give contractors more flexibility without compromising safety.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., an author of the 2002 legislation ordering the fines, accused the administration this week of distorting Congress’ intent with a plan that “will likely decrease worker protection.”

Some safety officials object
John Conway, chairman of an advisory board overseeing safety at the Energy Department, said the proposal would weaken safety standards covering more than 100,000 workers at the facilities. “The way it’s written, I don’t like it at all,” said Conway, head of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

Energy Department officials said they have not made a decision on the proposal and emphasized that the government would retain the authority to approve or reject safety plans written by contractors.

“The department believes the proposed rule seeks to fully protect our workers,” Assistant Secretary Beverly Cook said.

The proposal was outlined in a draft regulation put out by the department last month. Cook described it as part of a continuing effort to get contractors to focus on hazards specific to their sites rather than on dangers that don’t exist everywhere.

The Energy Department can now fine contractors who expose workers to hazardous levels of radiation, but it has no authority to levy fines for failing to protect workers from other industrial dangers, such as exposure to toxic chemicals.

The proposed rule would change that, allowing the department to assess fines against contractors who violate what would be contractor-written safety plans dealing with industrial hazards.

Fox protects the henhouse
“The decision making will be largely in the hands of contractors to decide what protections are appropriate,” said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio. “It’s the fox guarding the henhouse.”

The government often gives contractors financial incentives to complete projects ahead of schedule, and tough safety standards could slow contractors down, said Leon Owens, a worker and past president of the local union at the government’s uranium plant in Paducah, Ky.

“I don’t feel that a contractor would be as inclined to develop rules that would go the extra length to provide adequate protection for workers,” Owens said.

Some of the basic standards the Energy Department generally requires contractors to meet mirror Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations at private industrial sites, including commercial nuclear power plants.

While some contractors say they like the new rules, at least one is on record as opposing them. UT-Battelle, which operates the government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., said it would prefer one set of rules, based on OSHA guidelines, for all contractors.

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