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By Bobby Magill
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is aiming to respond more quickly to the public’s nuclear power plant safety concerns after the agency’s inspector general said the NRC’s slow response time is likely to erode public trust.
Any member of the public who has a safety concern about a nuclear power plant or other nuclear materials site has the right under federal law to petition the NRC to investigate and enforce safety regulations against the site operator. The petition process is known by the section of federal code that authorizes it—Title 10, Section 2.206.
Petitions sometimes take more than a year for the NRC to process and rarely lead to actual regulatory enforcement action. In addition, final decisions cannot be appealed. The NRC often offers little detailed explanation for why a petition was rejected, according to agency observers.
The NRC expects to finalize changes to how it handles petitions to address public safety concerns in April. The agency is proposing to update petitioners on the status of their complaints more frequently and provide better explanations for the status of petitions and why they have been suspended or rejected.
As of the end of 2017, the agency was considering seven petitions filed by individuals and nuclear safety and environmental groups. The petitions focus on questions of nuclear power plant flooding risks, worker safety, accident probability, nuclear materials cleanup, nuclear reactor commercial viability, potentially defective plant components, and claims of inadequate environmental monitoring.
“The public are stakeholders—they live near these plants. They’re the ones who have to evacuate in case there’s an accident,” one of the petitioners, Samuel Miranda, a former Westinghouse nuclear engineer who later worked for 14 years in the NRC’s Division of Safety Systems, told Bloomberg Environment.
“This process goes back to the First Amendment,” he said. “This is a grievance. The NRC has an obligation to the public to protect their health and safety.”
The NRC inspector general said in an August 2017 report that the agency’s review and rejection process for public safety concerns isn’t clear, leading to possible improper or inconsistent decisions about whether to act based on a petition.
The NRC has not issued orders in response to any of the 38 petitions filed from 2013 through 2016, the report said.
“The lack of such actions could adversely affect (the) public’s perspective on the effectiveness of the agency’s” petition process, the report concluded.
The 38 petitions did not lead to orders to fix safety problems because many of the requests didn’t ask for orders to be issued, but one petition did result in safety improvements at a nuclear power plant without orders being issued, the NRC told Bloomberg Environment in a statement.
“The NRC doesn’t grant most of the petitions, but that is to be expected,” Ellen Ginsberg, vice president, general counsel and secretary of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, told Bloomberg Environment. “If it did, that would indicate be a fundamental breakdown of the many other regulatory processes and NRC oversight.”
The petition process allows the public to air its concerns, but in a strong regulatory system, the agency should be finding problems long before they become obvious to the public, Ginsberg said.
The NRC said it expects the changes it is proposing to result in more timely responses and more granted petitions. But the agency’s response will depend on the quality of information the public provides about the safety problem, the seriousness of the issue, and whether it has already been addressed, according to the agency’s statement. The NRC is not proposing to add an appeal process.
It’s difficult for the public to raise safety concerns about nuclear power plants because they’re not always experts, Miranda said.
“For the most part, petitions I’ve received from the public, they’re not significant. Some of them are even nonsense,” he said. “The public, they’re not nuclear engineers. They don’t follow things that closely, but they get concerned about one aspect or another and chances are, the NRC has already addressed it.”
But many petitions are filed by experts, including nuclear power plant employees and nuclear safety groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The NRC is considering a petition Miranda filed last year asking the commission to force nuclear power plant operators to show that their plants that have had their operating lives extended do not have an increased probability of certain kinds of accidents.
Another petitioner, Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Bloomberg Environment that the changes aren’t perfect, but they will improve communication between the NRC and the public, and between nuclear power plant operators and the NRC.
Miranda worries that a “streamlined” process without the possibility of appeal will make it easier for the NRC to dismiss public safety concerns.
“Basically, the changes are there to make the rejections of the petitions faster and easier for the NRC. The changes are there to benefit the NRC, not the public,” he said.
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