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Public Citizen Denounces Nuclear Regulatory Commission Proposal to “Streamline” Reactor Licensing Hearings

Sept. 21, 2001

Public Citizen Denounces Nuclear Regulatory Commission Proposal to “Streamline” Reactor Licensing Hearings

Public Would Lose Right to Formal Proceedings

WASHINGTON, D.C. A proposal by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is unacceptable because it would severely limit or eliminate the public’s ability to conduct formal, trial-type hearings to oppose NRC reactor license applications, Public Citizen has told the agency.

In comments submitted to the NRC last week, Public Citizen was sharply critical of a rule being considered by the agency. Under the rule, informal hearings with no opportunity for the public to conduct document discovery (the compelled disclosure of documents) or to cross-examine witnesses would become the default proceeding for virtually all licensing issues, including initial reactor licensing, license extensions and license amendments for aging reactors.

Currently, formal meetings give the public an opportunity to question issues of design, safety, radioactive waste, health and environmental impacts, routine radioactive releases, and emergency preparedness of nuclear reactors that are proposed, under construction or already built. Informal hearings limit the amount of information the public can obtain and curtail their ability to get key documents about the issues at hand.

Under the new rule, citizens wishing to contest the license renewal of a local nuclear reactor would have almost no time to request a formal hearing. Currently, groups wishing to intervene in the licensing process (such as citizen groups, and state and local governments) are given only a month to review the license application and formulate “contentions” that describe and provide documentation for the concerns they wish to contest. The new rule would require intervening parties to submit their contentions almost immediately after the hearing notice is published; the number of days depends on the kind of hearing. It would be unlikely that most intervenors would have the staff or resources to adequately respond in such a short time.

In sharp contrast to the commission’s proposal to squelch public opposition for reactor licensing, industry enforcement hearings (held when a violation has occurred at a plant and penalties are determined) will be maintained as formal proceedings, allowing the industry to use the process to contest enforcement proceedings. The NRC’s discriminatory treatment between public and industry hearings on this aspect of the rule change is unjust because it preserves due process for the industry but eliminates it for the public, Public Citizen said.

This attempt to “streamline” the licensing process would further compromise the commission’s reputation and ability to be an effective regulator, and the proposed rule would “eliminate meaningful public participation and intervention in the licensing hearing process to the exclusive benefit of the nuclear power industry,” Public Citizen said in its comments. The NRC’s proposed actions are “blatant promotional activity” for the nuclear industry, Public Citizen said.

“Rather than fulfilling their mandate to build public confidence in the licensing process, and protect public health and safety, the NRC is rolling over and treating the nuclear industry as though it has a ‘right’ to any and all licenses,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The recent tragic events have shown that America’s nuclear plants could very well provide 103 deadly targets to terrorists. The public really should have a right to formal hearings to contest the licensing of any one of those radioactive targets.”

The group’s letter cited a 1987 report to the House Subcommittee on General Oversight and Investigations, entitled “NRC Coziness with Industry: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Fails to Maintain Arms Length Relationship with the Nuclear Industry.” The subcommittee identified five significant instances in which the NRC failed to maintain a proper regulatory distance from the industry.

“This is just another example of the commission paving the way for the current administration’s nuclear ‘relapse.’ The more barriers they can remove in the licensing process, the faster they can build new reactors and re-license the decaying ones,” said David Ritter, Public Citizen policy analyst. “This would be a serious blow to democratic processes within the agency, and if this proposal is not rejected in its entirety, I would propose that the NRC drop any pretense of being a ‘regulatory’ commission, and remove the word ‘regulatory’ from its name.”

The NRC is expected to make a decision within a few months.

Read Public Citizen’s letter to the NRC.