Public Citizen Calls on Nuclear Agency to Withdraw Secrecy Proposal

March 29, 2005

Public Citizen Calls on Nuclear Agency to Withdraw Secrecy Proposal

“Safeguards Information” Rule Would Unjustifiably Restrict Public Access to Industry Information

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has called on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to withdraw a proposed rule that would unduly and perhaps illegally broaden the scope of nuclear industry security information that would be restricted from public access.  The group made the assertion in formal comments submitted this week to the NRC on the agency’s proposed rule to revise its regulations governing the protection of so-called “Safeguards Information,” access to which is restricted to people who have undergone extensive background checks and demonstrated a “need to know” the information.

“If instituted, these new regulations would further compromise the public’s ability to hold the nuclear industry and its government regulators accountable for their management of nuclear facilities and materials,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

The proposed regulations go beyond the “minimum restrictions needed to protect the health and safety of the public or the common defense and security,” as required by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, the law that established the Safeguards category, Public Citizen said in its comments.

“Rather than applying the ‘minimum restrictions needed’ requirement, the commission is attempting to expand the category of Safeguards Information to encompass virtually anything it wants—including information important to the public such as engineering and safety analyses, emergency planning procedures and inspection reports on nuclear facilities,” Hauter said.  “This is an unacceptable information blackout that will leave the public in the dark about the competency of the nuclear industry and the NRC.”

The group also charged that the NRC’s proposed rule would improperly restrict the public’s access to important information that has proved useful in the past.  For example, using information obtained from the NRC about nuclear facilities’ security capabilities, citizen groups in the early 1990s successfully pressured the agency to adopt higher standards for the protection of nuclear facilities, incorporating the possibility of adversaries using truck bombs.

The proposed rule comes at a time when the NRC is under fire for its allegedly improper use of the Safeguards classification to conceal industry vulnerabilities.  U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) recently said in a letter to the NRC’s inspector general that the suppression of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study about the security vulnerabilities of the pools in which reactor operators store irradiated nuclear fuel may be “based on the fact that it disagrees with the NAS’ conclusions, not on any legitimate security concerns.”

The NRC also has been criticized recently—by Markey, Public Citizen and others—for its decision to bar public access to its online document library for several months while it conducted a security review “to ensure that documents which might provide assistance to terrorists will be inaccessible.”  Despite this restricted access, the NRC did not suspend its licensing or rulemaking proceedings, compromising the participation of stakeholders who needed access to the NRC’s documents. While most of the documents are back up on the Web, some have been redacted.

Public Citizen further noted in its comments that the Safeguards category is not subject to the protections from institutional abuse as is National Security Information, a government-wide category. The public may challenge perceived instances of abuse or excessive secrecy surrounding information in this category.

“This proposal gives the NRC and its licensees free rein to make secret virtually any information even tangentially related to the security of nuclear facilities,” said Joseph Malherek, policy analyst for Public Citizen and principal author of the comments.  “The NRC should withdraw this regressive proposal and instead establish responsible reforms to its rules for the protection of Safeguards Information.”

To read Public Citizen’s comments, click here.

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