On February 19, 2015, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission public meeting held in Brattleboro, Vt., descended into chaos. Protesters who were bent on disrupting the proceedings bullied and threatened people who wanted to speak at the meeting. The disrupters' tactics included shouting at speakers, interrupting their remarks, and making verbal threats against those who sought to speak in support of either the NRC's proposed action or the utility that was the subject of the meeting.
The objectives of the disrupters were to prevent the NRC from having a credible public process and to attack the diligence and compliance of the nuclear utility, which is regulated by the agency.
The facts are not open to debate. The disturbing details of this meeting were captured on video and were broadcast the next day on a local cable TV channel.
Ineffective outreach and failure to control large public meetings aren't a new problem for the NRC. In May 2014, a group of protesters at a meeting regarding Vermont Yankee interrupted the session by shouting that the NRC officials at the meeting were "lying and incompetent."
I asked the question why hasn't the NRC taken a more proactive approach to preventing its meetings from running off a cliff? I recommended that the agency change the way it does business and work with the regulated nuclear utilities to improve civility and communication at public meetings.
So what's happened since then?
The NRC has been working on a new policy statement for public meetings and held a webinar last September to take comments on it. Also, the agency has trained four groups of its staff as facilitators in methods for dealing with various types of public meetings. These are all positive steps.
However, the policy statement still isn't done as of the last week of December 2016. This means that by the time it does get out the door sometime in 2017, it will have been more than two years since the public meltdown in Brattleboro.
Federal agencies aren't known for making changes at warp speed, but this long period of time to work the issue seems to indicate it still isn't a priority for the agency. Worse, a recent series of incidents involving the Pilgrim Nuclear plant in Massachusetts indicates that given a choice to communicate with public officials, the NRC refused to do so.
Pilgrim Staff Appear 'Overwhelmed' Says Leaked NRC Memo
According to wire service and local news media reports in early December, staff at the Pilgrim nuclear power station in Massachusetts appear to be "overwhelmed" and struggling to improve performance at the facility, which is set to close in less than three years, according to an internal memo from the NRC leaked to the press.
The memo, written by Donald Jackson of the NRC, indicated that the 20 inspectors assigned to the plant have found a "safety culture problem" during a review along with problems with maintenance, engineering, and the reliability of equipment. Pilgrim has been under increased oversight from the NRC after owner and operator Entergy did not adequately evaluate the causes of unplanned shutdowns in 2013.
Jackson's draft memo was leaked to an environmental group who forwarded it to the Cape Cod Times. The newspaper posted the memo online. There are suspicions the leak was a deliberate act.
Memos like this one are not the product of a one person. They are team efforts with input from multiple NRC inspectors. Also, portions of the draft may have been shown to plant personnel for fact-checking purposes.
In the end it is unlikely it will be possible to confirm who sent the memo to the anti-nuclear group, but the intent is clear and the immediate effects are unmistakable. In Massachusetts local government officials demanded an explanation from the NRC about conditions inside the Pilgrim plant.
Where the trolley went off the track is that on December 14th the Cape Cod Times reported that the NRC refused to discuss with local government officials, or the public, about the federal inspectors' report.
Plymouth selectmen had demanded a representative from the NRC meet with them to explain what it means that the Pilgrim the staff "are overwhelmed, equipment in poor repair and engineers lacking in knowledge."
Jackson also noted a general inability at Pilgrim to comply with standard industry procedure. These all serious findings.
Local government officials are not familiar with nuclear regulatory language, but they do understand the word "overwhelmed." It is not a confidence builder for them when it comes to the question of whether the plant is safe.
Instead of accepting the request for a face-to-face discussion, NRC Regional Administrator Daniel Dorman sent Plymouth Board Chairman Kenneth Tavares a letter apologizing for the inadvertent leak of the email and any public consternation it may have caused. That's a good first step.
However, Dorman also said the agency would not meet with local officials or the public until the inspection at Pilgrim had been completed and the final report written.
Procedurally, and in terms of the regulatory flow of information about a report like this, Dorman is sailing his ship by the book. From the point of view of keeping the public informed, and practicing transparency in communication about how the NRC does business, Dorman missed the boat on both counts.
It is always a bad idea to refuse to meet with local government officials. The phrase "all politics are local" was coined in Massachusetts former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill who served in Congress representing a district in the Boston area from 1953-1987.
In this spirit, Dorman could have met with the local government officials, explained the NRC inspection processes, answered their questions about the safety of the plant, and otherwise put the entire issue of the leaked report, including the term "overwhelmed" in perspective and laid anxieties to rest in less than two hours. Instead, he's made things worse by raising unfounded suspicions that the NRC isn't telling the public everything it knows.
Further, an incident like this tarnishes the work the agency has done to try to improve public communications with social media. It takes only one message of "I'm not going to meet with you" to undo a barrel full of Facebook likes.
Where we are now is that the NRC still has a problem with public communications and an 'incomplete' in terms of finishing its work on a new policy. Training facilitators is helpful, but they'll need a policy in place that backs them up. The agency also needs to get its regional administrators in tune with the concept of "all politics is local" at Pilgrim or the next thing that comes along like it.