NRC Staff Should Stop Balking, Provide Fire Safety Information, Groups Say

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NRC Staff Should Stop Balking, Provide Fire Safety Information, Groups Say

Agency Is Refusing to Adhere to an Order to Release Document That Would Help Determine Safety of New Nuclear Reactors

WASHINGTON - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should stop balking and
provide a critical document that would reveal how the owners of a Texas
nuclear plant expansion project plan to deal with a fire or explosion,
three public interest groups told the commission late last week.
 
Three administrative judges of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board
have ordered the agency to provide at least a redacted version, but NRC
staffers have refused. The NRC's lack of transparency could impact the
ability to get adequate safety-related information not only about the
South Texas Project (STP) but about other proposed reactors around the
country as well.

Late Friday, the groups - the Sustainable Energy and Economic
Development (SEED) Coalition, Public Citizen and the South Texas
Association for Responsible Energy - filed a brief with the NRC. It
noted that the NRC staff's refusal to provide the information violated
President Barack Obama's new transparency policy. The groups also said
the NRC is acting arbitrarily and trying to shut the public out of NRC
proceedings.

"After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress required new fire and safety
standards for all new plants and the NRC developed rules to reflect
this. Now, the NRC is trying to do its work behind closed doors, and
its staffers are literally making up how to handle information as they
go along, keeping as much secret as possible," said Karen Hadden,
executive director of the SEED Coalition. "Without disclosure of this
information, we can't tell how well the NRC is doing in protecting the
public."

Friday's filing was the latest in a regulatory battle that began in
April 2009 when the three groups intervened in the licensing of two new
reactors at the STP in Matagorda County in southeast Texas. The groups
contend that the application for a license is inadequate.

The NRC has a new rule that requires licensees to develop and
implement guidance and strategies to protect nuclear plants from
explosions or fires, including those that would result from the crash
of a large commercial airliner. By signing non-disclosure affidavits,
the groups gained access to STP's plan to comply with this rule and
nuclear industry guidance on how to adhere to it.

On Aug. 14, the groups filed new "contentions" that STP was not adhering to the new fire safety rule.

Then, in October, the NRC posted on its Web site the existence of a
draft document, referred to as ISG-016, which provides guidance to
nuclear plant operators as to how to comply with the new fire safety
rule. The NRC maintains that it is not a public document because it
contains security-related information. The agency has created a new
classification of document, called "sensitive unclassified
non-safeguards information," or SUNSI, and said that records in this
classification, including ISG-016, are exempt from disclosure.

In November, the three public interest groups asked for the document but were turned down.

They appealed to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which on
Jan. 29 ordered the NRC staff to provide at least a redacted version of
the document. In the order, three administrative judges chastised NRC
staff for imposing unwarranted burdens on the groups and for
misapplying procedures. Further, they noted that requirements to access
the document should not be more stringent than the Freedom of
Information Act and told the staff to go through the document,
paragraph by paragraph, to identify the sensitive, non-public
information, and provide the rest of the information to the groups.

The NRC appealed the order, which prompted Friday's filing.

"It is crucial for the public to be able to participate in the
licensing of new nuclear reactors that may be in its backyard," said
Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of Public Citizen's Texas office. "We
cannot meaningfully participate in the licensing of the STP reactors if
we can't get adequate safety information, and that includes whether
these new reactors will be able to withstand a commercial jet crashing
into them."

Hadden noted that "the ability of the public to participate in
licensing proceedings is particularly critical as the Obama
administration is in the process of granting loan guarantees for new
nuclear plants - the first to be built in the U.S. in decades."

Last week, the administration announced an $8.3 billion loan
guarantee for Southern Company to build two new reactors at its Vogtle
plant in Georgia, and the administration has asked Congress to expand
the program from $18.5 billion to $54 billion. The owners of the
planned STP reactors - which include NRG Energy, Toshiba, CPS Energy -
are seeking federal loan guarantees as well.

"The NRC wants to barrel along and license these plants with
blinders on and without any involvement by the public," Hadden said.
"Well, the public has a right to be involved. People need to know what
is being built in their communities and how safe it will be."

A copy of the groups' filing is available at http://nukefreetexas.org/downloads/intervenors_response_opposition_brief_ lbp_10_02.pdf.

The Atomic Safety and License Board order is at http://nukefreetexas.org/downloads/nrc_public_order_012910.pdf.

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Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts.

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