updated 2/23/2004 10:09:11 PM ET 2004-02-24T03:09:11

The government shelved a proposal Monday that would have let contractors at federal nuclear facilities pick which safety rules they should follow.

The idea had come under fire from lawmakers, a government safety board and even some contractors themselves.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a letter to John Conway, chairman of independent Defense Nuclear Safety Board, that he was suspending the drafting of new regulations for implementing the proposal to get more suggestions.

Abraham said he was “deeply concerned by the perception” that the rule proposed by the agency two months ago would have endangered workers.

Congress, unions opposed
After The Associated Press reported on the plan last month, the safety board, members of Congress, union officials and other safety advocates came out in opposition to replacing long-standing government safety requirements at the plants.

“It’s a lot like you’re going down the highway and you can set your own speed limit,” said Richard Miller, a policy analyst with the Government Accountability Project, a private Washington-based watchdog group.

Agency officials previously had said that the government would retain the authority to approve or reject any contractor-provided safety plans that recommended waiving requirements they thought should not be applied to them.

Abraham emphasized Monday that contractors would not be writing the safety standards themselves.

Conway said he told Abraham in a meeting last week that the government must be responsible for setting safety rules. “In no way does the secretary want to give away that authority,” Conway said Monday.

He said a board hearing on the proposed rule scheduled for Friday probably would be canceled.

Energy workers pleased
Lawmakers who represent some of the more than 100,000 workers at Energy Department nuclear facilities nationwide seemed pleased with the reversal. They had accused the agency of twisting an amendment they added to the 2002 defense bill directing the government to fine contractors who don’t comply with safety requirements.

“I applaud the Department of Energy’s decision to suspend its proposed regulations — regulations that would have weakened worker safety protections,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

He said the department should immediately issue revised regulations that “truly reflect the intent of Congress to protect the safety and health of our nation’s energy workers.”

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

Two large contractors — Battelle Memorial Institute, based in Columbus, Ohio; and the University of California — criticized the Energy Department proposal, saying the agency should rely more heavily on OSHA guidelines.

The Energy Department can fine contractors who expose workers to hazardous levels of radiation, but until the changes in the law two years ago, it had no authority to levy fines for failing to protect workers from other industrial dangers, such as exposure to toxic chemicals.

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