President Donald Trump nominated a new member to a board charged with providing crucial safety advice to federal nuclear facilities, including Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Thomas Summers was appointed Friday to finish out a five-year term for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, pending Senate confirmation. The post has been vacant for nearly a year, following the resignation of former board chairman Sean Sullivan.
Summers is the Trump administration’s first appointee to the board.
Most recently, Summers worked for the National Nuclear Security Administration, where he served as the assistant deputy for research development testing and evaluation for military applications and served as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force.
The board was established in 1988 to provide independent safety recommendations to the U.S. energy secretary on issues at nuclear facilities. Board members work with on-site inspectors to learn of serious safety issues that could lead to nuclear accidents. But their safety recommendations also can come with a cost to federal contractors, which has at times made the board an unpopular entity.
“It is critical that the DNSFB is empowered to be strong and independent to ensure worker and community safety,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, in an email. “And that the board have the requisite leadership in place to fulfill the [the board’s] essential mission.”
Udall said he will be requesting a meeting with Summers.
The appointment comes at a time when the board is entwined in an ongoing debated with the Trump administration over its role and independence. The board has faced several efforts by the Department of Energy to limit its power. A proposal by Sullivan to eliminate the board was not adopted and led to his resignation. Plans to reorganize the board and eliminate many jobs at its’ Washington, D.C. office also was proposed to take effect last fall but rejected by Congress.
Last spring, the Department of Energy adopted a new order that limits the board’s access to information and appears to prevent it from overseeing worker safety concerns at numerous nuclear facilities around the country, including Los Alamos.
“The Secretary’s Order wrongly attempts to diminish the authority granted by Congress for the Board to provide independent analysis, advice, and recommendation to the Secretary of Energy in providing adequate protection of public health and safety,” Hamilton wrote in a letter to Congress.
The board has warned energy secretaries about ongoing safety issues at Los Alamos’ plutonium facility, and alleged the DOE’s order prevented it from accessing information about worker complaints at the lab last year.
Members of Congress, the public and the board itself have asked Energy Secretary Rick Perry to rescind the order, saying it appears to violate the Atomic Energy Act. Perry said in a letter in early December he disagreed.
The board maintains the order appears inconsistent with the act, and will hold a third hearing on the order in New Mexico next month.