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Nuclear Plant Licensing Hearing Should Not Be Secret

Dec. 20, 2004

Nuclear Plant Licensing Hearing Should Not Be Secret

Industry Regulator Seeks to Shut Out Public in Wake of Agency’s Security Lockdown

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) today asked an internal adjudicatory board to conduct a licensing hearing for a proposed nuclear fuel plant under a “protective order” that, if approved, would effectively make the entire proceeding secret and closed to the public, said Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS).

“This proposal is an affront to the principles of citizen participation guaranteed by law,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.   “This action would leave the public in the dark.”

NIRS and Public Citizen are contesting the application of Louisiana Energy Services (LES), a multinational consortium led by the European firm Urenco, which is seeking a permit to build and operate a uranium enrichment plant in southeastern New Mexico.  The groups charge that the company’s plans fail to meet regulatory standards in the areas of radioactive waste disposal and need for the plant, among other things.

The NRC says its motion is a remedy to a situation that has made it impossible for parties in this case to meaningfully participate: On Oct. 25, the NRC unilaterally blocked public access to virtually all of the electronic documents posted on its Web site pending a security review “to ensure that documents which might provide assistance to terrorists will be inaccessible.”  Most of these documents remain unavailable to the public.

Without access to essential documents, such as communications between the applicant and the NRC, parties to the proceeding—including the state of New Mexico—are unable to file timely and complete motions, briefs and testimony to present their case before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.  Pre-filed testimony is due Dec. 30, and the hearing is scheduled to begin Feb. 7, 2005.

“A real solution would be to suspend proceedings until access to NRC files is restored, as NIRS and Public Citizen have asked the board to do,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS.  “Shutting the public out of the licensing process would violate NRC regulations, which require public hearings.  Such hearings are the major way the public can learn about the issues—such as radioactive waste disposal—that arise from the proposed construction of nuclear facilities.”

NIRS and Public Citizen filed a motion on Dec. 15 asking the licensing board to suspend the schedule of the hearing until access to the hearing file is restored. Formal responses to this motion are due today, but the NRC staff has filed a motion to make the case confidential.

“It is inexcusable that the NRC is attempting to circumvent public scrutiny in this case, and it sets a poor precedent for future licensing actions,” added Michele Boyd, legislative director for Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.  “This unjust and inappropriate request ought to be rejected outright by the licensing board.”

To read the NRC’s motion, click here.

To read the motion of NIRS/PC to suspend the hearing, click here.