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Government Bows to Nuclear Industry Pressure by Gutting Its Environmental Justice Policy

Aug. 24, 2004

Government Bows to Nuclear Industry Pressure by Gutting Its Environmental Justice Policy

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ignoring the expressed concerns of citizens’ groups, including Public Citizen and the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) today published in the Federal Register its final policy statement on the issue of “environmental justice” (EJ), the phenomenon of disproportionate adverse environmental impacts of federal projects on minority and/or low-income populations. The agency should have endeavored to carry out the just and progressive executive order (EO) issued by President Bill Clinton in 1994 calling on agencies to incorporate EJ programs into their respective missions, which then-NRC Chairman Ivan Selin pledged to do. Instead, the NRC has bowed to industry pressure to inexorably weaken its ability to ensure that its licensing actions are fair, just and free of economic and racial discrimination, NIRS and Public Citizen said today.

“While the policy statement on the treatment of environmental justice matters in NRC licensing, rulemaking and regulatory actions purports to be a reaffirmation of the NRC’s commitment to the consideration of environmental justice issues, the new policy is disingenuous and retreats from the basic principles of environmental justice as established in the initial executive order,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

Today’s NRC policy statement asserts that the executive order “does not establish new substantive or procedural requirements applicable to NRC regulatory or licensing activities.”  The result is that the NRC likely will refuse to consider legal challenges regarding issues of racial discrimination, fairness and economic equity in its licensing hearings. In a current proceeding involving a proposed uranium enrichment plant, the NRC commissioners already ordered that only themselves – not the licensing board overseeing the hearing – would determine whether environmental justice issues would be heard.

The new policy appears to be a nod to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which is the lobbying arm of the nuclear industry and which submitted a letter to the NRC in December 2002 sharply criticizing the agency for its handling of EJ issues in licensing hearings. Those hearings involve Louisiana Energy Services, which is seeking a license for a uranium enrichment facility in New Mexico, and Private Fuel Storage, which is seeking a license for a high-level nuclear waste storage facility on the Indian reservation of the Goshute tribe in Skull Valley, Utah.Today’s statement appropriates many of the arguments and incorporates some of the recommendations articulated by the NEI in its letter. Moreover, the NEI has the broad interest of securing a license for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which may also face contentions related to EJ.  (The state of Nevada submitted comments urging the NRC to retract its EJ policy statement.)

“The NRC is abandoning environmental justice for Jim Crow regulation,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS. “The federal agency might as well hang a ‘Nuclear Industry Only’ sign on the hearing room door.”

As three large electric utilities seek Early Site Permits for the construction of new nuclear reactors and two energy industry consortiums seek licenses for controversial nuclear facilities, there is a manifest industry interest to clear the path for the licensing of these projects. Already, an NRC judicial board has dismissed an EJ contention brought to a licensing hearing for a new nuclear reactor at the Grand Gulf site in Port Gibson, Miss. The draft version of the EJ policy was cited by the board in dismissing charges that the proposed reactor would have disproportionate and adverse impacts on the surrounding area’s predominately African-American population. Grand Gulf is in Claiborne County, Miss., which is 84 percent African-American with 32 percent living at or below the poverty line.  Despite the racial and economic makeup of the county, the board was not willing even to consider that reactor operations, nor inadequately funded emergency plans, might cause a disproportionate impact – even though the electricity from the plant is not intended for the region.

“The situation in Claiborne County demonstrates the need for a strong, enforceable policy on environmental justice, but the NRC is instead eviscerating its policy,”   Mariotte said.  “It is unfortunate that the NRC appears so willing to violate its regulatory duty by reneging on the directives of the EO, when the only beneficiary of this action is the industry it regulates.”

According to the NRC, more than 700 people submitted postcard comments opposing the changes to the NRC’s policy.

To read the Federal Register notice regarding the NRC’s EJ policy, click here.

To read Public Citizen’s initial comments on the NRC’s draft EJ policy statement, click here.  

To read NIRS’ comments on the draft policy, click here.