05/29/2008 - 10:56

Good safety regulation isn't a partisan political issue

It appears there are misconceptions about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) performance depending upon where you stand. David Lochbaum believes that its regulations are fine but not well enforced. He cites dissatisfaction with the NRC from "both sides" not as a sign of fairness but rather incompetence. Victor Gilinsky challenges this notion, believing that NRC staff is highly competent and professional but not allowed to do its jobs by the commissioners. Anthony Pietrangelo suggests we look at the industry's recent performance as an indicator of plant safety, since supposedly unsafe plants have had an outstanding operating record over the last decade or so.

Clearly the recent performance record shows that the NRC and the industry have demonstrated a more effective approach to safety. For the industry, it's driven by economics. If a company isn't running a safe plant, it will experience equipment failures and/or regulatory-driven shutdowns, which are orders of magnitude more costly than preventative measures. NRC Chairman Shirley Jackson initiated the movement of the commission to a more risk-informed, performance-based regulatory body. New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici certainly had a significant role to play in this transformation since Jackson's earlier strict compliance policy was negatively affecting the industry's respect for NRC and overall safety. Since her new approach, great strides have been made in applying resources to areas that truly protect public health and ensure plant safety. The NRC's Reactor Oversight Process and its increased public transparency regarding safety and regulation are unheard of in any other industry or regulatory body.

Regarding Victor's assertion that the NRC is in the industry's pocket, I'd be interested in seeing his proof, as he provides no evidence to support it. Such a statement is easily made but hard to defend. Each commissioner has his or her private views about whether nuclear energy is a good thing or not. Commissioners on both sides of the nuclear issue have been appointed by presidents. The oath that each took when confirmed by the Senate was to safeguard the public's health and safety, not the industry's interests. These are all honorable men and women who I believe take their oaths seriously.

What has always troubled me more is the requirement that the commission be balanced between Republicans and Democrats. I can't see how a Republican or a Democrat can view safety differently. I could see how a commissioner with an anti-nuclear agenda might. Conversely, even the most ardent nuclear advocate should know that an unsafe plant will be shutdown, so enthusiasm for regulating less strictly isn't in his or her best interest.

Lastly, and perhaps most troubling, is that in recent times, the new NRC commissioners have come from the ranks of staff members of some senator or congressman or committee. This is unhealthy for the agency's reputation, since the public expects appointments to be made based upon an understanding of the technology to be regulated, not based upon congressional job history. Fortunately, at least a few of the commissioners have some kind of technical background--but not necessarily in the field of nuclear engineering.

So what's the bottom line? The NRC needs to be a technical body, charged with overseeing the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants and radioactive materials. Its staff must be highly trained with a keen sense of its role at all levels. The new trend toward a more risk-informed regulatory approach is a big step forward. Nonetheless, the NRC can never replace those who are ultimately responsible for nuclear safety--the people who design, build, operate, and maintain the plants.