U.S. to Fine Nuclear Contractors for Safety Violations for First Time

February 3, 2006

For the first time, the U.S. Energy Department plans to punish contractors who violate basic safety rules at the nation’s nuclear weapons plants.

Currently the government can fine contractors if they expose workers to radiation hazards but cannot fine contractors for exposing employees to toxic chemicals or other industrial hazards.

A new rule to be published by the government next week seeks to resolve that inconsistency.

The rule, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, says contractors can be fined up to $70,000 (euro57,900) a day for each non-nuclear safety violation.

“We’ve never had this enforcement authority before, and that’s why it is a significant step forward in enhancing safety and health issues across the DOE complex,” said John Shaw, assistant secretary of environment, safety and health at the Energy Department.

Congress ordered the agency three years ago to create the new rule and start fining contractors for safety violations that don’t involve nuclear material.

The agency subsequently issued two draft rules that lawmakers and others said were too weak. One would have allowed contractors to dictate which safety rules they should be required to follow.

“This took two mistakes, and they finally got it right the third time,” said Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, who pushed for the change along with Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.

In a statement, Kennedy said, “I applaud the critical changes that the department has made to ensure that America’s energy workers have the strong protections they need and deserve.”

The Energy Department nuclear weapons complex comprises 31 facilities in 17 states.

About 100,000 workers will be affected by the new rule. Their responsibilities include maintaining a nuclear arsenal, dismantling surplus weapons, disposing of excess radioactive materials, cleaning up old facilities and conducting energy research.

“Workers at these plants have long needed some type of enforceable regulation and rule. It’s kind of amazing that it’s the year 2006, and they’re just starting to get that,” said Tom Carpenter, director of the nuclear program for the private Government Accountability Project.

The new rule is to go into effect in one year.

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