Senseless Deprivation: The NRC Hiding Documents from the Public

October 17, 2014
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

Sensory deprivation involves the intentional elimination of stimuli of one or more of the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. While it can be used to promote meditation and other helpful applications, it often has more sinister connotations. For example, few if any Hollywood films feature sensory deprivation followed by scenes of folks winning huge lottery awards or otherwise experiencing unlimited glee. Movies, like 1980’s Altered States, portray sensory deprivation in a more dark and sinister way.

Speaking of dark and sinister, are you aware of the NRC’s senseless deprivation?

Nearly a decade ago, the NRC decided to withhold documents it received from plant owners regarding fire protection and emergency planning. Figure 1 is an excerpt from the NRC’s 2004 policy paper. The NRC knew that these classes of documents contain information that “will not need to be designated as sensitive.” In other words, there’s no legitimate, and legal, reason to withhold it.

(Source: NRC ML042310663 dated Oct 19, 2004)

Fig. 1 (Source: NRC ML042310663, Oct 19, 2004)

The NRC decided in 2004 that incoming documents from plant owners regarding fire protection and emergency planning with be “initially profiled as nonpublic.” In other words, digital copies of these documents will be placed in ADAMS – the agency’s online electronic library – but coded as nonpublic so they will not appear, even in bibliographic form, when members of the public access ADAMS and search its contents.

The NRC also decided in 2004 it “will review for release upon request” of these fire protection and emergency planning documents. In other words, if a member of the public were to ask for documents purposefully withheld from them, the NRC would review and release them. But how could the public know to ask for that which has been hidden from them?

Withholding Documents Since 2004

I stumbled across this unsavory NRC practice in July 2014. The previous month, I’d been invited to share our perspectives with the NRC’s Chairman and Commissioners during a public briefing on the progress of plant owners towards compliance with fire protection regulations. After that briefing, an NRC manager informed me the agency had been intentionally withholding documents about fire protection problems and progress towards resolving them for nearly a decade.

I almost immediately submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act for all incoming documents regarding fire protection since October 1, 2004 for every operating nuclear plant.

On October 3, 2014, the NRC added literally hundreds of documents to its public ADAMS library. Figure 2 shows a small subset of the documents released by the NRC in response to my FOIA requests.

Senseless Figure 2 20141015-nrc-adams-entries-1

Fig. 2 (Click to enlarge) (Source: UCS)

The belatedly released documents include LERs 06-001-00 reporting a fire protection problem affecting the Sequoyah Unit 1 reactor and a fire protection problem affecting the Palisades nuclear plant. Not a word was redacted from these documents before their release.

Publicly Approving Secret Requests

The belatedly released documents also include requests by plant owners for revisions to the regulatory requirements for fire protection. For example, Oconee’s owner applied to the NRC on June 1, 2006, for amendments to the fire protection requirements contained in the three reactor operating licenses (Fig. 2). On February 29, 2008, the NRC publicly approved this “secret” request by revising fire protection requirements for Oconee.

Similarly, Turkey Point’s owner responded on July 12, 2006, to an NRC request for additional information regarding its request for an exemption from fire protection requirements (Fig. 2). On September 27, 2006, the NRC publicly approved the “secret” exemption request.

And Browns Ferry’s owners submitted a request dated November 15, 2006, to the NRC seeking to revise fire protection requirements contained in its operating license (Fig. 2).  On April 25, 2007, the NRC publicly approved this “secret” request.

By letter dated June 29, 2007, Fort Calhoun’s owner requested an exemption for fire protection requirements (Fig. 3).

And by letter dated December 11, 2007, the owner of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant responded to the NRC’s questions about fire protection with respect to its license renewal application (Fig. 3). The NRC publicly renewed the operating license for Shearon Harris in December 2008.

Click to enlarge (Source: UCS)

Fig. 3. (Click to enlarge) (Source: UCS)

But the NRC did not make these hundreds of documents available to the public until October 3, 2014. By improperly hiding these documents, the NRC deprived the public of its legal rights under federal statutes. Federal regulations require that the NRC provide an opportunity for the public to comment on or intervene in the agency’s licensing process.

How could the public comment on or intervene against requests to revise or exempt fire protection regulatory requirements when those requests and associated information are purposefully hidden?

How could I share constructive, meaningful perspectives with the NRC’s Chairman and Commissioners when its staff has purposefully hidden hundreds of documents about past problems and progress over the past decade?

I try very hard to provide balanced commentary in proper context – pointing out what is working well and where things are falling short of expectations. But the NRC’s intentional hiding hundreds of documents over the past decade denied me that opportunity.

No Legitimate Basis for Withholding Documents

I have yet to find a single word, diagram, or picture redacted from any of the fire protection documents belatedly made publicly available on October 3, 2014. That tells me that these documents did not contain sensitive information that might aid our enemies in sabotaging these facilities. In other words, there was no legitimate basis for the NRC to withhold these documents and this information from the public.

The NRC has a tried and true process for protecting sensitive information from disclosure. Plant owners can, and do, submit documents to the NRC with requests that they be withheld from the public in accordance with 10 CFR 2.390. UCS wholeheartedly supports the proper withholding of sensitive information that could help people sabotage these vulnerable facilities.

But the owners did not request that any of these documents be withheld. The owners did not believe these documents contained sensitive information.

The NRC did not review these documents and determine, contrary to the owners’ beliefs, that they did contain sensitive information. Instead, the NRC simply withheld hundreds of fire protection documents from the public just because it wanted to.

Depriving the Public of Legal Rights

The NRC’s intentional withholding of fire protection documents deprived the public of its legal rights and provided a distorted picture of safety at the nation’s nuclear power plants.

The NRC has also intentionally withheld emergency planning documents submitted by plant owners since October 1, 2004. I’ve also submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act for these hidden records. The NRC has not yet provided any documents in response to my requests. The FOIA office has told me that the sheer volume of the withheld information – averaging over 550 pages per reactor – is slowing their response.

Owners of permanently shut down reactors, such as Kewaunne, Crystal River 3, and San Onofre Units 2 and 3, and the owner of the soon to be permanently shut down Vermont Yankee reactor have applied to the NRC to significantly narrow the scope of emergency planning. Senators Barbara Boxer, Bernie Sanders, and Edward J. Markey have introduced legislation to assure adequate emergency planning at permanently shut down nuclear plants. By withholding emergency planning documents, the NRC is depriving the public of its rights under law to participate in the agency’s regulatory decision-making process.

NRC’s Unfulfilled Openness Goal

The NRC claims that openness is one of its five core values. The NRC’s define openness as being

Nuclear regulation is the public’s business, and it must be transacted publicly and candidly. The public must be informed about and have the opportunity to participate in the regulatory processes as required by law. Open channels of communication must be maintained with Congress, other government agencies, licensees, and the public, as well as with the international nuclear community

The NRC isn’t even close to fulfilling this openness goal when it intentionally withholds fire protection and emergency planning documents from the public and deprives the public of its legal rights to participate in the regulatory process.

The NRC’s senseless deprivation must cease and desist. It is simply unacceptable behavior.