Agencies should not allow creation of a hostile environment at public meetings

On February 19, 2015, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) transported a substantial contingent of regulators to Brattleboro, VT to hold a public meeting about Entergy’s Post Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR) for the permanently shutdown Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Brattleboro Community TV produced a video record of the event.

Watching that video is a disturbing, stressful way to spend nearly 4 hours. It should have ended at 9:00, but the last speaker didn’t get the microphone until nearly 10 when the room had to be vacated. Quite a few of the people who signed up to talk had gone home by the time the moderator called their name.

The meeting was frequently disrupted, with some hostile and intimidating actions by a large tribe of people sharing a specific point of view. That tribe had a designated warrior named Gary Sachs who was often cheered and congratulated for his disruptions. The meeting moderator not only tolerated the disruptions, he enabled them in the same way as a parent who only pays attention to the child who is acting out while virtually ignoring the one who is behaving.

Because I know that most people don’t have the time or the stomach to watch a four hour marathon, I produced a clipped version that focuses on Mr. Sachs’s actions and the actions that respond to his presence. Even with that filtering criteria, the clip is still 26 minutes long.

It distresses me to see how many people have forgotten certain key components of our revered 1st Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
(Emphasis added.)

I support that entire statement and recognize that it puts a burden or responsibility on all of us when we remember that its delineated rights apply to all Americans. Each of us has the right of free speech, but our right to say what we want or need to say fades out when it intrudes on the rights of other people to say what they want or need to say. At a public assembly, we would not want our government officials shutting us out of the conversation, but we must recognize that those officials have a responsibility to protect the rights of everyone else to participate.

We do not live in a country were the person with the loudest voice, the largest bank account, or the most intimidating demeanor gets to dominate a public conversation and shut everyone else out. We cannot have a peaceable assembly when bullies insist they they own the turf and we cannot petition the Government for a redress of our grievances if an individual backed by a mob shouts us down in a public forum specifically designated as a venue for speaking to Government representatives.

The responsibility to protect everyone’s rights falls on the shoulders of the designated government officials and law enforcement officers assigned to hold a public meeting. They have the equivalent of a judge’s gavel and should use it to maintain order. In situations where stakes are high, emotions are charged up, and tempers may flare, keeping order requires early and effective action.

Meeting ground rules should include procedures for peacefully escorting people out of the meeting when they have proven that they don’t respect the rights of others and escalation responses that might include a recess or complete adjournment.

When people learn that their government officials have abdicated their responsibility and developed a habit of holding raucous meetings where disorder and hostility prevail, some of them will avoid participation. Many good and thoughtful people walk away from conflicts, but that means that their voices aren’t heard and their thoughts are not shared.

I have been following the long-running public discussions about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station for at least five years. There is a history of meetings hosted by the NRC where uncontrolled outbursts and hostile actions were tolerated. There is also a record of special, almost encouraging meetings with groups that have a habit of disrespecting others. Those meetings have often excluded responsible individuals and groups with a different point of view.

I’ve written about this issue in the past, but haven’t always had such good visual evidence of the interruptions and the way NRC meeting leaders have tolerated those interruptions, almost to the point of subtle encouragement.

After watching the four hour video of a meeting that should have only lasted three hours, I contacted the NRC Public Affairs office to ask why they had let the meeting be dominated by disrupters. Here is the first response in what turned out to be a rather lengthy exchange.

Rod,

Gary Sachs is a longtime opponent of the now permanently shutdown Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. When the Seven Days publication ran a story on the closure of the plant last December, Mr. Sachs and his wife were among those featured: http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/gone-fission-assessing-a-future-without-vermont-yankee/Content?oid=2484782 .

We knew going into the meeting that Mr. Sachs might be interested in seeking to disrupt it. This was based on his behavior at past NRC meetings regarding the plant. Our decision was to not exacerbate the situation by having him removed from the meeting. Instead, our facilitator, Chip Cameron, repeatedly reminded Mr. Sachs that his interruptions were unacceptable; were doing a disservice to audience members there to learn more about the decommissioning process for the plant; and that eventually he would have an opportunity to speak at the microphone, which he did. The lack of Mr. Sachs’ removal should not be considered in any way an indication that the NRC condones such behavior. We would also note that Vermont has a high threshold for the removal of citizens from public meetings.

The NRC always tries to strike the right balance between allowing members of the public to express their views – and all of the passion accompanying that for some – and creating an environment in which other audience members can gain information without distractions. As we always do, we will seek to learn from the Vermont Yankee meeting and further refine our meeting protocols going forward. In the meantime, we will continue to encourage attendees at our meetings to be respectful and to strive for civil discourse that serves everyone’s best interests.

Eliot
(Note: From an older email with a more complete signature.)
Eliot Brenner
Director, Office of Public Affairs
US Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Mr. Brenner and I then exchanged some short, philosophical emails about ways to run a meeting, with me pointing out that appeasement doesn’t work. Here is another important response from him.

Rod: We have been in the process of fleshing out a plan to improve NRC public meetings, including guidance for the conduct of meetings. As that work unfolds the experience at VY will be taken into account.

While we want to be inclusive, we do not want that to impact those who are at our meetings to listen and learn, regardless of their perspective.

With respect to the VY meeting. There have been other VY meetings that were more challenging and we did not seek the removal of individuals. That includes a case in which manure or compost was thrown at and on members of the NRC and the licensee. There is every chance that seeking to remove Mr. Sachs would have been the story, not the information being presented. And the act of ejecting someone could have led to further disruption, given the composition of the audience. Additionally, there is a very high legal threshold in Vermont for ejecting someone from a public meeting and, as I understand it, it could bring the hearing to a halt. Beyond that, we had a good facilitator who has dealt with this individual before and who was working politely to rein in the person.

That said, we are working on this issue with the aim of developing a more structured way to permit the public to better be able to participate, comment, ask questions and learn, and to better deal with, and if necessary remove, those who would disrupt meetings.

As I think I said earlier, we regret that the behavior of one individual detracted from the experience of others at this meeting.

Eliot

After letting Brenner know that I would be writing about this topic in hopes of encouraging continued efforts to ensure that all people have their rights respected, I responded with the following email.

Eliot:

There is every chance that seeking to remove Mr. Sachs would have been the story, not the information being presented.

Why are you so concerned about what “the story” about the meeting would have been?

The purpose of a public meeting is to provide information and an opportunity for comment to the responsible citizens who take the time to attend the meeting and who behave themselves.

Additionally, there is a very high legal threshold in Vermont for ejecting someone from a public meeting and, as I understand it, it could bring the hearing to a halt.

Vermont may have a high threshold for ejection, but the conduct that is clearly visible on the recorded video is illegal. One is not allowed to call someone a “scumbag” (twice) or to snatch the microphone from the hand of someone else, or to physically threaten someone by intruding on their space.

Walking out of or stopping a disruptive meeting is an appropriate response that has been used at certain regulatory agencies, including one to the north of us.

http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/activists-are-lashing-out-at-the-canadian-nuclear-safety-commission

With respect to the VY meeting. There have been other VY meetings that were more challenging and we did not seek the removal of individuals. That includes a case in which manure or compost was thrown at and on members of the NRC and the licensee.

The NRC’s tolerant responses to incredibly nasty behavior like the “manure or compost” incident in previous meetings did not help to establish good order and peaceful assemblies. It encouraged worse behavior, in the same way as purchasing a candy bar for a child who is acting out in the grocery store encourages future misbehavior.

Beyond that, we had a good facilitator who has dealt with this individual before and who was working politely to rein in the person.

I disagree with your judgement about the skills of your chosen facilitator. Being nice to problem children is unfair to the adults who are there to engage in an important civic duty.

At least in this tiny corner of the internet — which reaches many people who care deeply about using atomic energy to improve public health, safety and prosperity — the “story” about the meeting is the way that the NRC failed in its responsibility to provide a peaceful assembly so that all people — including those whose lives will be harmed by the successful actions that helped to force the plant closure decision — could petition the Government for redress of their grievances.

The current commission is not the same one that enabled the protesters in Vermont to establish a pattern of behavior that discouraged nuclear energy supporters from participating fully in the public dialog. Fortunately, the NRC has a well-deserved reputation of being a learning organization that recognizes that self-criticism and focused efforts to improve based on extracting lessons from operating experience will result in improved performance.

NRC leaders also know the value of learning from the best practices of others, so I hope they find some good examples of agencies that run effective meetings that allow peaceful participation by people of varying points of view. They probably have some internal examples of more successful approaches to habitual disrupters.

Additional reading

Canadian Energy Issues – Free speech, Monty Python, and Civil War reconstruction: anti-nukes are not funny

Neutron Bytes – NRC must do more to insure civility at its public hearings

Yes Vermont Yankee – UPDATE; Bullying at the NRC Meeting: Rod Adams, Dan Yurman and Steve Aplin


Preview of things to come: Yesterday I watched the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee hearing on the NRC’s FY2016 budget request. It was a refreshing example of our government at work. My Twitter feed has a number of comments about the hearing.

For those who don’t have time or interest in watching the full hearing, I plan to post clips that include key highlights by Monday morning.

Sweet Briar College announced its closure on March 3, 2015

SWC mugYou might be wondering why I’ve chosen to write about an announcement that a small, but historic women’s liberal arts college is planning to close. What does that have to do with atomic energy?

The college, Sweet Briar College, is located a little less than an hour from my Forest, VA home. I’ve met a few of the faculty and students at American Nuclear Society and Engineering Week meetings during my four and a half years in the Lynchburg area. At the December 2014 meeting, I spoke with a graduating senior and a professor. They invited me to come and give a talk about nuclear energy to the school’s Engineering Club.

You might be surprised to hear that a liberal arts college has such a club, but engineering is a creative field whose graduates can change the world by using applied science to improve physical conditions for masses of people.

We scheduled the talk for noon on March 3, 3015 — yesterday.

As we were setting up for the talk, my host informed me that the college president had made an announcement at about 10:00 am that he was convening an “all college” meeting at noon. She apologized profusely, but told me that the talk was not mandatory. She knew it would affect the attendance numbers but thought that some people would make the decision to come, eat pizza and listen to me, figuring they would hear about whatever the president had to say in due time.

Before the talk, I had a brief chat with one of the professors who helped to establish the engineering science major at Sweet Briar. The effort began in 2005; the program received its accreditation in 2010. The initial expectations were rather modest, with plans to attract enough students to graduate perhaps five majors each year and to provide enriching courses for students in other curricula. Instead, the program has proven quite popular and produces about 20 graduates per year with room for a few more.

It is one of only two women’s colleges in the US that offer an accredited degree in engineering.

I spoke to a group of about 20-25 young women who were animated and full of questions. The topic of the talk was using nuclear energy as a tool to empower human society while reducing production of combustion waste material that is changing our global atmospheric chemistry. Near the end of the talk, my wife, who was filming the talk for me, noted a few members of the audience surreptitiously checking their phones and getting a stunned look on their faces. One woman put her head down and seemed to be sobbing.

After I finished talking and answering questions, we found out that the college president had announced that the school’s board of trustees had voted to close the 114-year-old school. This semester is the last one; nearly all of the staff will be out of a job and all of the underclass students will have to find another place where they can complete their degree programs.

The school’s explanation for the decision is that recruitment is getting too difficult. Sweet Briar has an enrollment of about 600 students but classes in recent years have been shrinking a bit even as the admissions office has offered more and more financial aid. The school is not in dire financial condition; it has a $94 million endowment. However, the Board decided that the trend lines were not in the right direction and they did not want to gradually sink.

Though Sweet Briar is in a rural area, it is immediately off an exit of US 29, a nearly interstate highway quality road with a 70 MPH speed limit between Sweet Briar and Lynchburg. It took me less than 25 minutes after leaving my talk to arrive in downtown Lynchburg for an after-talk meal.

Sweet Briar College has a gorgeous campus nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Apparently, it has an “insanely fast” wi-fi network that blankets its 3,000 acre campus.

Lynchburg is a regional growth story and a place where there are good jobs with several major employers interested in hiring talented young people, especially those who can bring a diverse point of view to fields that require both technical expertise and a good understanding of humanity.

Areva, B&W, Harris, and several smaller communications firms all have large operations in the Lynchburg area. In fact, the young lady who invited me to talk is a Sweet Briar senior who told me excitedly that she had just landed a job with Areva starting 2 weeks after graduation.

My point is to suggest that the school might have pulled the plug too early, especially if its recent recruitment goal misses are on the order of a few dozen students. I am not saying that their engineering program would be the savior of the school, but that there is a very important role for people who have an interest in both the humanities and applied science.

I wonder if the Board of Trustees approached the Lynchburg business community for assistance as they were trying to find a path that would enable the college to survive and prosper. Engagement with the business community could improve the existing internship programs and provide opportunities to establish work-study programs. The companies have important questions requiring focused research that could help support some of the faculty members with grants.

This might be just one more losing cause where my awareness and interest has come way too late to have any effect on the outcome. If Sweet Briar College has not talked to Lynchburg area employers, there might be an opportunity if action happens immediately.

I’ve been in plenty of meetings and discussions over the years that have focused on the challenge of attracting women into engineering and other applied science fields AND providing them with a supportive, nurturing, confidence-building environment once they start working.

One path that has not been fully explored is partnering with women’s liberal arts colleges to develop appropriate curricula and major programs. Those institutions have historically provided women with a useful set of tools that can enable them to thrive in competitive, formerly male-dominated professions. By their very nature, they are institutions where women take on leadership roles and where they are not distracted or disrespected by some of the activities that occur on coeducational campuses.

Nuclear technology is a field that desperately needs to improve its outreach to women, not only as potential employees, but as political decision makers and potential customers. Lynchburg has a large nuclear industry that is under duress, partly because it has not successfully explained its value to enough women.

Now I hope you understand why I chose to write about the imminent closure of a small, private, women’s liberal arts college. It is out of a vain hope that this article might reach a few people who can help to change the story.

PS – There are some great images of the school available using “Sweet Briar College images” as a Google search term. We didn’t have a still camera with us yesterday, but I think I’ll have to go back and get some photos to share with you. If you try to reach the college web site anytime soon, you will be met with error messages. The news resulted in so much traffic that the site crashed hard.

The college leadership produced a video explaining their decision process and giving some advance word on the transition that they will be undertaking. I was intrigued to hear that the current president of the college has only been on board for 8 months.

Additional reading

Washington Post – March 3, 2015 Sweet Briar College to close because of financial challenges

Diseconomy of scale – world’s largest canned-motor reactor coolant pump

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