Committee on Science
November 13, 1997
To download the full report in PDF format, click here.
Washington, DC - Responding to a request from Science Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. and Ranking Democrat George E. Brown, Jr., the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report today on the events surrounding the discovery in January 1997 of a tritium leak at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Suffolk County, New York.
"This report indicates that the failure to discover the tritium leak in a timely manner was due, in part, to systemic and management problems at DOE," Chairman Sensenbrenner said. "This raises serious concerns about DOE's management and environmental compliance at other DOE labs and calls for strong Committee oversight, including hearings next year, in order to address these issues."
Congressman Brown added, "What I find most disturbing about DOE's role is that, despite ongoing press reports of community anger and mistrust of the lab, no one at the Department took those concerns seriously. Like GAO, I believe that DOE's lack of consideration for the people of Long Island is the issue for which DOE personnel should be held accountable."
BNL is a federally funded Department of Energy (DOE) research facility operated by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI). The lab uses two nuclear reactors for scientific research which produce tritium, a radioactive isotope, as a by-product of the reactor operation. Although tritium is normally found in water, large quantities may be harmful if ingested or absorbed.
The tritium leak at BNL went undetected for as long as 12 years. On May 1, 1997, Secretary of Energy, Federico Pena, terminated AUI's 50 year-old contract because of the disintegration of public trust and lax environmental monitoring efforts. The GAO reported that DOE admits to have "made mistakes" but still found BNL responsible for the tritium leak-problems. The GAO, however, found DOE also responsible for these problems. According to the report, DOE failed to hold its labs and employees accountable for environmental safety and health, and that this failure was due in large part to DOE's poor management structure which has been long criticized in internal and external reviews.
In their June 4, 1997 request, Chairman Sensenbrenner and Rep. Brown asked GAO to address the following issues: (1) how the Brookhaven situation developed, including the breakdown in public trust; (2) who was at fault; (3) what conditions and management processes, or lack thereof, led to the tritium incident and to the decision to terminate AUI; and (4) the Department's failure to put in place a management system that has clearly defined authority, roles, responsibilities, and accountability of individuals involved both at headquarters and BNL.
In response to these findings, Chairman Sensenbrenner and Rep. Brown asked GAO to study and report back to them on DOE's management of the federal civilian laboratories.
The letter to GAO and the GAO report is available on the Committee's website at: http://www.house.gov/science/welcome.htm.