NRC Restores Public Access to Information

September 22, 2015
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #64

In July 2014, UCS learned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had for nearly a decade been blanket withholding all documents it received from nuclear plant owners about fire protection and emergency planning.

In November 2014, I wrote the NRC Chairman on behalf of UCS, Beyond Nuclear, Greenpeace, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Enformable.com requesting that the Commission revisit this policy and revise it to restore the public’s access to non-sensitive information.

The blanket withholding policy had been adopted in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy as one of the measures intended to protect against the successful sabotage of U.S. nuclear power plants. The fire protection and emergency planning documents might contain information useful to potential saboteurs. The documents probably lacked such information, but the NRC opted to err on the side of caution.

Our group letter pointed that that during the intervening years, the NRC and the nuclear industry had made considerable progress identifying the kinds of information that should not be publicly available. Additionally, the NRC had established a process for plant owners to use when submitting documents to the NRC that contained this sensitive information.

We requested that the NRC discontinue the blanket withholding policy and instead rely on the common understanding the agency had reached with nuclear plant owners about sensitive information and the process developed by the NRC for handling such information.

The NRC staff revisited the issue, but did so from the wider perspective of information withholding practices in general. Whereas we had narrowly asked that the policy as applied to fire protection and emergency planning documents for operating nuclear power reactors be revised, the NRC staff reassessed its document withholding policies more broadly. Following this reassessment, the NRC staff in March 2015 asked its Commission for approval to restore public access to many documents but restrict access to documents containing sensitive information. The Commission voted unanimously in June 2015 to approve the NRC staff’s request.

Bottom Line

UCS appreciates the NRC granting our request and restoring public access to fire protection and emergency planning documents submitted to it by nuclear plant owners.

UCS is even more appreciative of the NRC reassessing its document withholding policies holistically and revising them globally. As a result, not only will the public regain access to fire protection and emergency planning documents, but also to appropriate documents spanning the NRC’s wide range of responsibilities.

The NRC’s decision continues to protect against radiological sabotage while restoring public access to many records. In late 2004 when the blanket withholding policy was adopted, “sensitive information” was like beauty in that it was subjectively in the eyes of the beholder. And even had “sensitive information” been objectively discernible to all parties, the NRC lacked a process for plant owners to use when submitting documents containing this information. With both of these issues long since resolved, the NRC can restore public access to the majority of documents lacking “sensitive information” while withholding from ne’er do wells the few documents containing “sensitive information.”

 

The UCS Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) is a series of post intended to help citizens understand nuclear technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s processes for overseeing nuclear plant safety.