Rather unexpectedly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is asking for public comment on whether and how it should disclose more information on the security of nuclear power plants and other facilities.
“We view nuclear regulation as the public’s business and believe it should be transacted as openly and candidly as possible,” said NRC Executive Director of Operations Bill Borchardt.
Among other things, the NRC wants to know what currently undisclosed information members of the public would like to have released: “What specific details would increase your level of satisfaction in our regulatory oversight of licensed facilities?”
The NRC published a request for comment in the Federal Register on July 29 (pdf), along with related background material (pdf).
It is practically a law of bureaucratic physics that government agencies do not spontaneously seek to become more transparent and accountable absent some significant change in personnel or other triggering event.
According to David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the triggering event in this case was congressional outrage at the NRC’s concealment of a major “nuclear safety event” in 2006 at the Nuclear Fuel Services plant in Erwin, Tennessee.
In that case, approximately 35 liters of highly enriched uranium solution leaked and spilled, creating the possibility of a criticality accident, i.e. an uncontrolled chain reaction. Yet “NRC failed to notify the public or Congress for 13 months regarding this serious incident,” complained Rep. John Dingell in a July 3, 2007 letter (pdf) to NRC Chairman Dale E. Klein.
“We call on NRC to make every effort to withhold from public view only those documents that contain security sensitive information, and restore to the public all other documents that have been withheld….,” Rep. Dingell wrote last year.
The current NRC request for public comment on ways to increase openness, Mr. Lochbaum told Secrecy News, “is the agency’s bureaucratic effort to extricate themselves from the hole they dug.”
In 2003 congressional testimony (pdf), Mr. Lochbaum described the NRC’s past refusal to engage with outside experts and public interest organizations on security policy.
“The net effect of the agency’s actions is to exclude the public from intervening on security issues in specific licensing cases and also to exclude the public from participating, even in the limited capacity of merely expressing concerns, in security policy discussions,” Mr. Lochbaum testified at that time.