Suggestions to Improve NRC Meetings

, | May 23, 2012, 6:01 am EDT
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On May 17, 2012, I participated in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) public meeting in Tarrytown, NY, which was apparently one of a series of occasional meetings to receive input from the public. The purpose of this meeting was described as:

Discuss the NRC’s assessment of safety performance at Indian Point for 2011 as described in the NRC annual assessment letter dated March 5, 2012. NRC staff will be available to answer questions on our role in ensuring safe plant operation.

The meeting was to consist of an Open House from 6 to 7 pm, and then a public meeting from 7 to 9 pm (although in the announcement of 04/17/2012, the Open House is shown as 6 to 8 pm and the public meeting, 7  to 9 pm).

According to the rules for participation, effective May 28, 2002, placards attached to sticks are not permitted, but there were many small placards in evidence, not attached to sticks.

I address only the NRC portion of the meeting, which began reasonably promptly at 7 pm. The meeting was conducted by a genial NRC employee with a hand-held microphone. The host introduced the five or six people at a table at the front of the ballroom, who were wearing name badges and had microphones to respond to questions. The host indicated that they would hear first from elected officials and then from members of the public who had submitted their names and request to be heard on white cards available in the reception area. Each person was to speak for no more than two, or perhaps three, minutes.

The host called three people by name to queue up behind a microphone in the aisle, and then asked them to speak in turn.

Unfortunately, to my mind, there were very few substantive discussions of the safety assessment, and these few did not receive immediate substantive answers. One, for instance, dealt with substantial corrosion of stainless-steel bolts.

Responding to an inquiry regarding a hydrogen recombiner, which is required to be tested every two years but had gone five years without testing, the NRC resident inspector volunteered that it was she who had discovered this, and that when she called it to the attention of the plant operator, the system was tested and passed the test. The inspector seemed quite proud of this achievement. My question is what was happening for the three previous years that the test was overdue by NRC rules?

Speeches generally supporting the continued operation of Indian Point reactors were, at least toward the beginning of the session, met with chants of “Shut it down!”  And there were occasional interventions from the other side when the role of the NRC or the operator was criticized.

Several times, a speaker wished to address one of the officials at the table by name, but the name tags were far too small to be legible from the position of the floor microphone. There were no name cards on the table in front of the speakers.

Some speakers went on clearly past the allotted time, and the host occasionally attempted to bring that speaker to close, but the host wore only a wristwatch, to which he rarely referred. The host did not wear a name tag, so that I in the second row could not identify him by name. Some in the audience addressed him as “Dave.” My first encounter with “Dave” was when I entered the room and attempted to sit in the first row. He told me that row was reserved for people who might be asked by NRC to respond to questions. I suggested that he could put pieces of paper marked “Reserved” on the seats, but he ignored this suggestion. Four or five other people also had a similar direct interaction with “Dave.”

Without going into detail, I have four suggestions for NRC public meetings:

  1. The NRC representatives and any others at the speakers’ table should have name cards in front of them with their name and organization in large, bold letters. I participate in many meetings, and the majority have such cards.
  2. If there are seats reserved from general occupancy, the host should put a piece of paper on each such seat, or a ribbon along the seats.
  3. The host should wear a name tag so that he could be addressed by name.
  4. There should be a projected count-down clock started at three minutes or two minutes, and counting down to zero, at which time the speaker would be cut off.  If the NRC cannot conveniently find a count-down clock, then an ordinary count-up clock could be used.

On this last point, a clock could be laid on the easel of one of the digital document projectors that are common in presentations, with the image projected on the wall behind the speakers’ table or on a screen hung for the purpose. Alternatively, a flat-panel display could be driven by either a computer or a USB device to provide the countdown. I would be glad to make a gift to the NRC of a suitable clock.

These measures would improve the efficiency of the meeting and might also engender respect for the NRC. I encourage others to provide constructive feedback to the NRC on its meetings as well.

Richard L. Garwin is a National Medal of Science laureate and Fellow Emeritus at IBM. He has done a wide range of research in fundamental and applied physics, and has published numerous books and articles on nuclear power and related matters. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. He is a long-time Board member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Many of his writings are available in his online archive

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