Public Faces Further, Unexplained Restriction in Access to Information - Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Instructed to Slap Lid on DOE Documents

December 16, 2001

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), an independent U.S. Government agency charged with oversight of U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear safety issues, last week halted all public access to technical documents obtained from the DOE. The action was taken in response to a citizen (*) request to view DOE documents held by the DNFSB in Washington, D.C., and which in the past were accessible.

In response to the single request, the Safety Board apparently inquired of DOE how to deal with public requests and was told to withhold all documents. DOE apparently has failed to exactly explain to the DNFSB why documents should be withheld, but was generally concerned about sensitive information which could possibly be contained in any DOE documents in the Board's possession. A DNFSB staffer said that DOE did not explain any guidelines as to how documents would be reviewed nor when any review would take place.

The move by DOE appears to be legal, as the charter the DNFSB states the "Secretary of Energy many deny access to information provided to the Board to any person" who does not have security clearance or need to see the documents. (42 U.S.C.2286)

The DNFSB also appears to have stopped providing printouts of documents in its possession. As of Friday, December 14, external requesters were still able to view printouts of documents held in the library but were not allowed to take those printouts from the Board offices, located on Indiana Avenue in downtown Washington.

Given DOE's chronic lack of commitment to openness on matters relevant to public health and safety, the DNFSB has played a critical role in providing a tiny window onto DOE activities and information. Slamming this window shut under the guise of national security could well prove to be a disservice to those working in the public interest on DOE issues. DOE should take immediate action to clarify release of technical documents in the hands of the DNFSB and pledge only to withhold information which could clearly benefit someone with malevolent intent. Likewise, the DNFSB should immediately seek clarification from DOE about renewed public access to documents in its possession.

Tom Clements (* the "citizen" in question...)
Nuclear Control Institute