The Government Accountability Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, reports that the U.S. Energy Department is failing to review most export requests within the 30-day target it has set, and employs few if any tools to catch or punish cheating that could aid rogue nuclear programs.
In fact, the department since 2008 hasn’t referred a single violation of the so-called Part 810 export rule to the Justice Department for possible prosecution or tried to revoke a single U.S. firm’s ability to export nuclear technology. And the department doesn’t even seem to know if has the legal authority to impose civil penalties against firms that run afoul of nuclear export rules, the report said.
Despite the growing threat of increasingly determined rogue states or terror groups to acquire nuclear weapons, the report describes a remarkably laissez faire atmosphere of policing nuclear exports, echoing concerns that first surfaced as far back as the Reagan administration.
“DOE has taken limited actions to enforce Part 810. DOE’s primary method for monitoring compliance with Part 810 is reading reports from exporters, but according to DOE officials, they conduct in-depth analysis on less than 10 percent of reports and do not have a risk-based procedure for selecting reports to analyze,” the report warned. “Also, because DOE does not provide guidance for companies to self-identify and self-report possible violations, DOE is missing an opportunity to leverage exporters’ role in monitoring their own compliance.”
GAO said the lack of aggressive policing raises legitimate concerns that the Energy Department “may be missing important information that could lead to identification of violations and allow the agency to take enforcement actions when warranted.”
Energy Department officials agreed with most of the report’s findings and its recommendation to improve security and the speed of export requests, noting among other things it is developing a new e-licensing system.
In its official response, the department said it is “working to identify gaps, overlaps, and inefficiencies in the Part 810 authorization process” and that it plans to consult with other regulatory agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to “determine what risk-based procedures” could be added to the current monitoring system. The agency also promised to resolve the question of whether it can fine violators.
The Energy Department is one of the key agency’s in the U.S. government’s anti-proliferation dragnet, working in concert with other regulatory bodies such as the Commerce Department, State Department and the NRC to ensure Americans can compete worldwide in the growing business of peaceful nuclear energy without aiding enemies seeking to make nuclear weapons.
The department, however, has long been criticized for lax enforcement and monitoring, in fact as far back as Mr. Reagan’s second term three decades ago,
The GAO concluded in a May 1986 report, for instance, that the Energy Department had “failed to establish objective standards for authorizing exports” and had authorized nuclear technology exports “without review and based on factors not contained in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978.”
The current report is certain to be watched on Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers are monitoring President Obama’s effort to strike a deal with Iran by Nov. 24 to end its nuclear weapons program. One key question will be how the U.S. and Western powers ensure Iran complies, and doesn’t find backdoor ways to keep development a nuclear bomb.
The problems inside the Energy Department and its National Nuclear Security Agency, which handles nuclear export requests, also are affecting U.S. companies that want to export legitimate and peaceful technology in what is a growing global marketplace for nuclear energy. GAO raised concerns in 2010 that the department needed to do a better job reviewing requests to help American companies compete.
But the new report, found that department misses its 30-day deadline for each stage of export request reviews about 90 percent or more of the time, and also has failed to clarify some regulations confusing exporters.
“DOE has acknowledged exporter concerns that processing times for specific authorizations can impose business risks, and DOE officials have proposed initiatives to reduce processing times,” the report noted.