Fission Stories #10: Official Misconduct

, director, Nuclear Safety Project | September 7, 2010, 8:00 am EDT
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In October 1988, the NRC conducted a public meeting at its headquarters in Rockville, MD to discuss restarting the Pilgrim nuclear plant near Plymouth, Massachusetts. A funny thing happened on the way to restart:

A top aide to Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis was dragged from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) meeting yesterday after he tried to speak out as commission officials discussed a reactor in his state. Peter Agnes, Dukakis’ chief aide on atomic power issues, rose as NRC staff members told the commission the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth was ready to open after a 2 1/2 year shutdown even though it lacks an approved emergency evacuation plan. Agnes, an assistant Massachusetts public safety commissioner, was pulled from the audience by NRC security guards and dragged from the hearing room as he yelled that he was tired of hearing “half-truths.” He was not arrested but was barred from the building. (Washington Post, 10/15/88.)

Mr. Agnes reported that his knee was injured when NRC security personnel pulled him across the back of’ his chair in their haste to escort him from the building. After the expulsion attracted considerable media attention, NRC Chairman Lando Zech sent Mr. Agnes a letter of apology. The Chairman wrote:

I did not recognize who you were before security guards had already removed you from the room. (Boston Globe, 10/15/88)

From the Chairman’s explanation, it would seem that he watched his security staff forcibly remove someone from the meeting room. He did not intercede, presumably because he thought it was merely a member of the public who was being ejected.

Imagine the Chairman’s shock and awe when he learned that the person dragged kicking and screaming from the meeting room was not a lowly, despicable private citizen but a State Official – someone nearly, but not quite, as important as a Federal Official or an NRC person.

Our Takeaway:

Through four decades of monitoring and engaging the NRC, it is UCS’s firm conviction that the NRC views public communications as a one-way street. In NRC’s view, the public has but one role at NRC meetings – to passively listen to the NRC and plant owners. The NRC repeatedly acts as if no member of the public could possibly contribute anything of value to the discussion.

Things are marginally better today than in 1988 when Mr. Agnes was mistaken for a member of the public. In those days, the public had no opportunities to ask questions or make statements during NRC’s “public” meetings. Today, the public has formal opportunities during all NRC public meetings, except those conducted by the Chairman and Commissioners.

The NRC should complement the public’s ability to speak with its own ability to listen.

“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

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