Energy Department Sued for Nuclear-Security Reports

WASHINGTON (CN) –A nonprofit investigative news organization claims the Department of Energy is withholding nuclear security employee evaluations and records about payments made to contractors at nuclear weapons sites.

The Center for Public Integrity filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Washington, D.C., federal court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, saying that the department has ignored a Freedom of Information Act request that was initially filed more than 18 months ago.

The documents sought by CPI concern the National Nuclear Security Administration’s annual performance evaluation reports, along with correspondence between management and operation contractors announcing award fees. The news organization also wants access to any contractor’s “self-evaluation reports.”

Established in 2000, the NNSA bills itself as a “semi-autonomous agency” within the DOE that is responsible for “enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science.”

Priding itself on its ability to test the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile “without nuclear explosive testing,” the agency also provides the U.S. Navy with “safe and effective nuclear propulsion and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad.”

In its sparse five-page complaint, CPI said its June 19, 2015, FOIA request involved access to DOE evaluations from 2006 to 2011 at various national laboratories. The labs named in the complaint include the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Los Alamos in New Mexico, the Pantex Plant in Texas, Sandia National Laboratory in Washington, D.C., the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and two NNSA “national security campuses” in Kansas and Tennessee.

According to the complaint, CPI also requested correspondence between management and nuclear administration officials responsible for determining “discretionary” fee awards.

The performance evaluation plans, reports and fee determination letters are available on the DOE website for 2012 and beyond, but full records for the five previous years are not posted online.

When CPI initially made the request, it says the NNSA responded that the info was available online before quickly closing the request.

“Upon plaintiff’s objection that in fact the requested records were not available online as defendant had claimed, defendant on July 7, 2015, withdrew that initial response and stated that the ‘request is currently out for a search for responsive records,’” the complaint states.

Last month, a FOIA specialist for DOE finally contacted CPI via email asking for patience as documents from the various labs trickled in. The specialist also promised to “prepare a partial response” with the documents it already had on hand, according to the lawsuit.

Giving the agency a chance to respond, CPI told the DOE it would “hold off on filing suit until Feb. 3 in hopes that responsive documents will be provided by then,” the complaint states. No records have been submitted to the center to date.

“Plaintiff submitted its request more than 18 months ago. Since more than 20 working days have passed since defendant received plaintiff’s request, plaintiff has exhausted all applicable administrative remedies,” the lawsuit states.

CPI declined to comment on its lawsuit. The DOE did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

The nonprofit is represented by its in-house attorney, Peter Newbatt Smith.

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