Researching DOE Records

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The Department of Energy (DOE) welcomes researchers interested in documenting the Department's history. Significant portions of DOE's records, including declassified materials on the nuclear weapons program, are open to the public. Other materials can be accessed through Freedom of Information Act requests. The Department of Energy, nonetheless, is a complex and diverse agency, and finding and accessing information is not always an easy task for the researcher.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) delineates the rules and procedures governing public access to Federal agency records. The FOIA provides for public access in two ways. First, the FOIA requires that agencies automatically make public certain types of records, such as policies, orders, circulars, and regulations. DOE makes this type of information available at public reading rooms in the Department's headquarters and field offices. Second, the FOIA establishes a process for the public to request access to agency records not routinely available. Certain records are exempt from access under the FOIA, including materials that are security classified in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.

Public access to DOE records is not limited, however, to the FOIA process. Permanent historic records of DOE and its predecessor agencies are transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which makes the materials available to researchers. In addition, DOE makes records available through certain other mediums and venues, such as online at OpenNet, at public reading rooms, or at the Nuclear Testing Archive (formerly the Coordination and Information Center). The Department's Office of Scientific and Technical Information distributes reports and other published information in both hardcopy and online. Information that is made available to the public through these other means is not subject to the FOIA process.

Overview of DOE and Its Records

DOE Records Encompass a Number of Federal Agencies

The Department of Energy was established in 1977. Two major, largely separate sets of activities made up the new agency. One set consisted of nuclear energy programs--including the design, development, and production of nuclear weapons--descended from the Manhattan Project/Manhattan Engineer District (MED, 1942-1947) through the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, 1947-1975) and the short-lived Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA, 1975-1977). The other set consisted of disparate energy-related programs transferred from the Department of the Interior and other agencies, some directly to DOE, some through the Federal Energy Office (FEO, 1973-1974)/Federal Energy Administration (FEA, 1974-1977), and others through ERDA.

DOE Has Headquarters and Field Sites

Overall policy direction at DOE originates in the headquarters offices in the Washington, D.C., area. The Secretary of Energy and program office heads are located at the Forrestal Building (10th and Independence Avenue, SW). Other offices are located at the Germantown Building (and several satellite buildings) in the Maryland suburbs.

DOE field sites are spread across the country. Most are or were associated with the nuclear weapons complex. DOE uses Operations Offices and, more recently, Field Offices to administer the various field sites that include laboratories, production and assembly facilities, and facilities undergoing cleanup and closure or transition to other activities. Operations Offices, which date back to the AEC and whose number and location have changed somewhat over the years, currently are located at Richland (Hanford) , Washington ; Idaho Falls , Idaho; Chicago, Illinois; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and the Savannah River Site near Aiken , South Carolina . On December 18, 2002, DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which Congress established in 1999 to manage the nuclear weapons program, announced that the Operations Offices at Oakland, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, were being eliminated. Sites that had previously reported through the Operations Offices would now report directly to headquarters. Field offices include Carlsbad (New Mexico) and Golden (Colorado).

Historically, Operations Offices wielded considerable power with a significant degree of independence. Field facilities operated by contractors reported through Operations Offices and sometimes through local area offices, which in most instances reported through the Operations Offices. Field records have always been maintained in the field.

DOE Has Program and Staff Offices

The Department's various missions--ensuring energy security, maintaining the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile, cleaning up the environment from the legacy of the Cold War, and developing innovations in science and technology--are managed by Program OfficesElectricity Delivery and Energy ReliabilityEnergy Efficiency and Renewable EnergyEnvironmental ManagementFossil EnergyLegacy ManagementNuclear Energy, and Science. Field sites and laboratories report to DOE headquarters through the Program Offices.

DOE Staff Offices provide administrative, management, and oversight support to DOE's Program Offices.

DOE Facilities Are Operated by Contractors

Contractors have operated DOE's laboratories and production facilities since the MED. Federal personnel at operations, field, and area offices direct and oversee the contractors. Contractors keep separate records. Not all contractor records are Federal records, but contractor records identified by the contract as owned by the government may be subject to Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act provisions. FOIA requests must be directed to the appropriate DOE office and not to the contractor. Government regulations call for the management of Federal records, and all DOE and DOE contractor-operated sites have established Records Management Programs. Records programs and procedures, especially at contractor-operated facilities, vary from site to site. Some sites lack the facilities or staff to accommodate outside researchers. Other, such as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, maintain an active archival program, and outside researchers are encouraged to make use of available historical resources

DOE Records Are Organized by Collection within Record Series

Collections--not individual documents--are the organizing principle for most DOE records. Collections are formed on the basis of record series, a records management designation for a broad range of materials organized by subject, time frame, location or some other way of putting together like folders and documents. Policy or administrative documents, for example, may form the basis of a collection, or offices may maintain a chronological file of all outgoing correspondence or a collection on a particular subject such as superconductivity. Multiple collections may exist for any given record series. While they are physically in the possession of the originating office, collections usually are maintained in file cabinets. When they are sent to records storage, collections are housed in boxes. A collection may consist of hundreds of boxes or as few as one box.

Documentation Is Maintained on DOE Records Collections

Record series, and therefore the collections within the series, are scheduled, by the originating office and with the assistance of records management, according to NARA-approved disposition schedules. A determination is made as to whether collections within a series are temporary or permanent. Records managers are familiar with the records collections they manage both in Records Holding Areas and in temporary storage at NARA Records Centers. Most records managers have automated inventories of the collections, either at the folder or the box level.

Security Classification Can Be a Roadblock

Most DOE sites connected with the nuclear weapons and nuclear energy programs have records that were created in a culture of secrecy and limited access for reasons of national security. These records may be difficult to access because they still contain security-classified information. Some of these records may contain information that is no longer classified, but the records themselves have not been officially declassified. All classified collections require a declassification review before they can be made publicly available. Although most classified collections contain a mixture of classified and unclassified documents, the collection as a whole is classified at the level of the most highly classified document or documents. Declassification of these collections requires a labor-intensive, page-by-page review before they can be opened to the public. Absent a declassification review, the only ways to access records in classified collections are through a Freedom of Information Act request or a mandatory review request under the provisions of Executive Order 12958. With a FOIA or mandatory review request, classified documents still must under undergo a sometimes lengthy declassification review.

Most DOE Records Are Temporary and Ultimately Are Destroyed

Only an estimated ten percent or less of all Federal records are deemed permanent records to be saved in perpetuity. The rest are destroyed, usually within three to fifteen years, on the basis of disposition schedules approved by the National Archives and Records Administration. The vast majority of the records that are destroyed are administrative records of little, if any, historical interest. Researchers should be aware, however, that the records they wish to access may no longer exist.

Electronic Records

This guide primarily focuses on paper records. Electronic records, however, are becoming increasingly the norm. For example, the files of DOE's Executive Secretariat, consisting of the Office of the Secretary's internal and external correspondence, have been totally digitized since 1996, with the exception of a retained hard copy of the incoming memo or letter. As with paper records, electronic records are subject to NARA-approved disposition schedules, and researchers have the same rights of access.