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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The situation at the NRC

There are so many posts on line and articles extant at the moment about the previously hidden, but now well exposed management situation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it would be difficult to sum them all up. Further, it would be hard to fully describe all of the events in one brief and easily read post, so I will simply sum up the events until this point.

-For some time now, there has been an atmosphere of intimidation on the part of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, as alleged (now very publicly) by all four other NRC commissioners. (There are five commissioners, one of whom is Chairman.)

-There is also alleged a policy of withholding information from commissioners, on the part of the Chairman, for the purpose of controlling decision making.

-It is a fact that the Chairman holds the position of Chairman solely and completely as a result of political and not operational considerations; Jaczko has absolutely no nuclear plant, nuclear engineering or nuclear energy administration experience whatsoever (prior to appointment as a commissioner due to political leverage, and later politically as NRC Chairman.) The plain fact is that Jaczko was formerly associated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and was placed in position of Chairman by President Obama after having been a commissioner.

-The above has led widely to speculation that Jaczko's appointment was made with the understanding that his sole purpose was to kill the Yucca Mountain HLW (High Level Waste) storage facility plan, which was to be located Nevada - Reid's state - and which Reid opposed. Jaczko is accused in many quarters of having shut down the review of Yucca Mountain when it in fact was the NRC's obligation to complete the review even if the findings were that the facility would be impractical or even unsafe. (The study was shut down far before any final report was launched.)

It should be kept in mind when reading the above fact that the Federal Government is and has been for many years legally obligated to provide such a long term storage facility, in order to get HLW off the sites of owner-operators (i.e. the nuclear power plant sites themselves) and has totally failed in this obligation. Jaczko's killing of the project study is thus especially troubling in light of the fact that no alternative was prepared, or even suggested.

-There is now political tug-of-war at play, as Democrats (Rep. Markey) try to demonize the four other NRC commissioners for damaging the NRC's work and thus nuclear plant safety (a ridiculous accusation, and baseless) and as the White House has issued a letter of apology written by Jaczko who states that he will reach out to the other commissioners and will keep them more in the loop as it were.

-This all comes in advance of a House Oversight hearing on this NRC management problem tomorrow at 10 AM Eastern. Surely, some or all of the response by Jaczko, the Democrats (variously) and the White House is meant to stem the onslaught of accusation and presentation of fact that would make Jaczko look bad at tomorrow's hearing.


The above basically summarizes where we are on this whole NRC "event" at half past one in the afternoon Tuesday, December 13. I will now offer some of my own personal opinions on this subject and on Jaczko in general, for whatever they are worth.

1. THE NRC NEEDS TO BE EXCLUDED FROM THE POSSIBILITY OF MAKING NATIONAL ENERGY POLICY. Jaczko himself seemingly quashes any discussion about Yucca Mountain any time it is brought up; a good example of this was the NRC webinar in which this author took part a short time back, which was presented by the work of the ANS and moderated by my friend Dan Yurman. In that webinar Jaczko said that Yucca Mountain was a non-issue as it was dead, and that the NRC essentially served as an appellate court of sorts to decisions relating to licensing board activity. Thus, Jaczko clearly believes that the NRC is in the business, in a back door sort of way, of dictating national energy policy. The NRC's job should be simply that of a regulatory agency; it should perform licensing and oversight functions only and leave energy policy to lawmakers. Any and every effort, up to and including a clear re-writing of the NRC's charter, should be made to prevent any NRC decision from killing a nationally (federally) mandated project or review. Part of the reason the AEC was split up was that whatever project the AEC wanted, it got; this does not mean that the NRC has the option of killing any and every project it wants to kill. We have swung too far the other way.

2. NO SAFETY IMPLICATIONS HAVE OCCURRED OR WILL OCCUR AS A RESULT OF THIS ONGOING SITUATION. In point of fact, the NRC under Jaczko has been almost completely obstructionist in terms of licensing new nuclear plants. As pointed out some time back by fellow blogger and nuclear professional Rod Adams, the NRC has never approved and licensed any plant whose design process began after formation of the NRC. In other words, all the licensed facilities were begun before the NRC was created. Thus, its rate of approval is presently zero. It would be difficult to believe that there is any safety implication, thus, in the licensing of new designs. Further, when there were some questions the NRC Chairman had about the AP1000 design and which were not apparently answered to his satisfaction he decided to go wholly public with this information, possibly damaging the market position and business potential of a major nuclear equipment manufacturer. If this had occurred by statement of a private citizen, potentially many millions of dollars worth of slander lawsuits could have been filed. Certainly, no NRC or AEC action has been so public before; they are always resolved internally. Jaczko further exacerbated matters by saying more or less that he felt he can use any and every method available, and would do so again. Seeing all this it's impossible to believe that things are "getting by" the NRC or being rubber stamped by it. In fact, it's the opposite, apparently (according to the accusations) thanks to the Chairman in no small part.

3. THE NRC CHAIRMAN MUST BE SELECTED BASED LARGELY ON EXPERIENCE IN THE FIELD AND NOT SIMPLY BY POLITICAL AFFILIATION OR MANDATE. It seems clearer all the time that Jaczko's purpose at the NRC is wholly politically motivated, especially considering the sharp Democratic responses to the common complaint (from all four other commissioners) of his problems. If it were only Republican-appointed people complaining about him in the first place, we might see the complaints and rebuttals purely as political... but it's everyone. It's very easy to see that this might be alleviated to some extent if the Chairman had nuclear industry experience to back up decisions - but he does not, so we have instances where Jaczko feels the need to force post-Fukushima changes onto plants where they're clearly not required and then uses his demeanor or any other method* to shout down or suppress any opposition. The plain fact of the matter is that the direct cause of the Fukushima Daiichi accident was a forty foot high tsunami; thus, the only immediate changes we need make in the United States are to those plants possibly subject to a similar disaster. An NRC Chairman with experience would know this. I can of course go on for hours about why someone in charge has to have experience and be able to do the jobs of those he leads, but that's Business Management 101 and I won't bother to repeat any of that here.

* At the webinar, the NRC Chairman hinted that the budget might get tight in the future, and that some real decisions might have to be made about whether to develop post Fukushima alterations or proceed with licensing. This makes it sound as if the Chairman is willing to use budget constraints to leverage the changes he wants with the threat of licensing (or re-licensing) holdups.

I could go on, but if we look at what the other nuclear bloggers have written I'm in majority agreement. I thought I would write a few things I had not seen elsewhere in detail.

What we are really waiting for now is tomorrow's hearing and webcast. There is sure to be more political damage control attempted between now and then. I will decide for myself, after tomorrow's hearing, as to whether it's time for Chairman Jaczko to get out of town or not.

2:00 PM Eastern Tuesday December 13, 2011

1 comment:

  1. My understanding of the role of a Chairman is:
    - facilitate agendas for meetings
    - facilitate the decisions of the committee
    - provide a casting vote should the committee be deadlocked
    - present these decisions to the public or whoever needs to be informed

    A chairman wanting to participate in a committee debate normally vacates the chair and a temporary chairman is appointed.

    A chairman making decisions that are not the opinion of the committee, or considered by them, is called a dictator.