The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) is not convinced, despite statements from the deputy secretary of energy here in an open hearing Tuesday, that the Department of Energy intends to preserve the independent federal nuclear-watchdog’s unfettered access to U.S. nuclear-weapon sites.

Energy Department officials testified before the four-member board about an order the agency published in May concerning the agency’s interactions with the DNFSB. The document, which replaces an older order, sharply limits the board’s access to DoE contractors and allows it to release certain information as it sees fit.

Nevertheless, the order “does not hinder cooperation with the DNFSB or prevent the DNFSB from providing independent analysis, advice and recommendations to either the Secretary [of Energy] or other in the Department,” Dan Brouillette, deputy secretary of energy, said in a prepared statement to the board. He left without taking questions from the board and would not speak with Defense Daily sister publication Weapons Complex Morning Briefing.

Board members did not agree, and worried the new order will greatly diminish their access to important DoE facilities, documents, and staff, while defanging their primary lever for influencing DoE policy — formal safety recommendations to which the secretary of energy must publicly reply.

Chris Roscetti, DNFSB technical director, said Order 140.1 could: reduce the number of DoE weapons facilities to which the board has access by about 70 percent; put important paperwork now available to the DNFSB off-limits — for example, the widely used documented safety analyses that describe hazards associated with building, operating, and cleaning up nuclear facilities; and block resident inspectors at five major weapons sites from attending meetings with DoE and contractor staff.

Board member Jessie Hill Roberson said DoE’s order forbids the DNFSB from making formal recommendations about certain topics, including worker safety at nuclear-weapon facilities.

“You have other tools available to you to communicate issues,” Matthew Moury, DoE’s associate undersecretary for environment, health, safety, and security, told Roberson.

But discussing concerns with DoE outside a formal recommendation — a blunt instrument Roberson said the DNFSB uses as a last resort to prod the agency into changing its behavior — could prevent the issues from coming to light publicly, board members said.

The Energy Department “won’t necessarily limit our access, but they will limit their response. And our effectiveness is only as good as the department response to our advice,” said DNFSB member Joyce Connery.

Both Moury and William “Ike” White, associate principal deputy administrator for DoE’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, said the department does not believe it needs to review the new order or temporarily pause its implementation across the weapons complex. They did not say when the order would be fully implemented.