Craig Piercy, the Executive Director and CEO of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), sat down with Chair Chris Hanson of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to talk about the NRC’s role in nuclear energy development and the way that the agency is responding to growing demands for its services to the American public. This post focuses on the first five minutes of the interview.
*Update: The video interview is now available to all. Access was originally limited to ANS members.
Piercy started the interview by asking Chair Hanson how he and his agency balance the demands of people who he describes as “industry folks and climate activists” that are asking the agency to improve its current “plodding, hidebound, allergic to innovation” processes with the demands of a “shrinking but still loud” group of people that question the agency’s fundamental approach to safety. Piercy represented the position of the second group with a quote from “one senator” who said that “The agency has consistently prioritized industry profits over public protection.”
Chair Hanson stated that there is a lot going on at the agency and that there is an increasing level of attention being paid to its functioning. He emphasized that the NRC is a scientific and technical organization that has to stick to the science and engineering. He also said that they need to stick to their mission.
Then Hanson demonstrated that he might benefit from a broader interpretation of the NRC’s mission statement and the agency’s statutory obligations under both the Atomic Energy Act and the Reorganization Act of 1974. We have a much deeper base of scientific and technical knowledge about the safety and value of nuclear energy during the nearly 50 years since the creation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
He said that the NRC’s mission is to “protect people and the environment.” He told Piercy that he expected that the interview was going to include a discussion of “general welfare.”
He decided to preempt the question and provide his thoughts without prompting. “If you think about these two poles, there’s some pressure on folks at the NRC to think of their mission more broadly. To not be focused just on the safety of it, but to think about the general welfare in terms of the Atomic Energy Act… General Welfare means different things to different people. To some people it may mean more regulations because they are really concerned about what they see as the harmful effects of radiation on human health and the environment. And other folks are looking at the economic mission or maybe the climate imperative. And so for us to really stick to our scientific and technical mission is maybe more important than ever. Particularly in this environment also with some amount of mistrust in government institutions. There’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there in the public.”
Speakers can never cover any topic completely, so I hope that Chair Hanson realizes that people who strongly support increased use of nuclear energy are driven by a number of considerations in addition to industry profits and climate mitigation. Those are important, but a partial list additional motivators would include the importance of adequate energy supplies to support modern society, the air and water pollution from fossil fuel use that has strongly negative impact on human health, the national security implications of abject dependence on fossil fuels, and the importance of advancing science and medical applications of radioactive materials.
Many studies have compared numerical, scientific and technical facts about nuclear energy with similar measures of its replacement energy sources. The results of those evaluations should encourage the NRC to more broadly interpret its assigned mission.
Three equal parts to the NRC Mission
One part of the NRC’s mission is providing “reasonable assurance of public health and safety.” When it takes longer than necessary to license safe reactors, more fossil fuel gets burned while the project is waiting for approval to get started. Overly burdensome oversight during construction and operation also play a role in slowing nuclear power while increasing fossil fuel dependence.
Safety science research proves that nuclear energy is many times safer than coal, oil or natural gas. Research on the effects of recent plant closures proves those are the fuel sources that provide most of what the nuclear plant would have provided.
In an era where the world’s dominant supplier of nuclear fuel services like enrichment and conversion is aggressively waging war on its neighbor, licensing safe fuel cycle facilities in a timely manner helps to “promote the common defense and security.” Objections and claims about any negative health effects from an efficiently reviewed facility should be able to be addressed by a confident, competent regulator that applies its scientific and technical expertise. Common defense and security considerations should also support international efforts to harmonize regulations to enable trade among friendly nations so that they can better benefit from the special properties of nuclear fuels and radioactive materials.
The NRC’s mission to “protect the environment” is almost a mandate to enable widespread use of safe nuclear energy. Scientific and technical literature is almost unanimous in stating that nuclear power has a lighter impact on the environment than any competitive energy source. One recent example was a study produced by the UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission on Europe) titled Life Cycle Assessment of Electricity Options.
Some of the people and organizations that demand additional regulations and claim that the NRC is consistently working to further the aims of the industry might be just as motivated by monetary considerations as the nuclear industry. There are enormous economic gains to be captured when nuclear power is burdened by slow moving regulations. Those groups have often been the sources of the “misinformation and disinformation” that Chair Hanson mentioned.
Confident factual response to concerns
An agency driven by scientific and technical facts should be able to efficiently and effectively respond to pressure from groups that express concerns about the health effects of the very low levels of radiation associated with routine AND credible accident scenarios at nuclear power plants and fuel cycle facilities.
It’s logical for members of the public to have “concerns” about health effects. It is part of the NRC’s scientific and technical mission to provide the public with a basis for alleviating the concerns. This fact-sharing should not be an ad hoc effort that only answers questions when asked; it should be a broad-based effort that repeatedly provides accessible, credible information. The public deserves to know as much about nuclear science as it does about immunology or climate change.
The NRC has an important mission. It is the monopoly provider of the licenses that allow the safe use of abundant, clean and incredibly capable fuel sources that can help human society live healthier, more prosperous and less risky lives. It must perform its technical and scientific mission and resist political pressure from nuclear opponents with as much vigor as it resists pressure from industry groups.
It is incumbent upon the NRC’s “principle executive officer” to exercise his statutory responsibility with regard to “appointment and supervision” (Vol 1 p. 2-16) of NRC employees to help them understand that their mission is bigger than the traditional interpretation. The Department of Energy was assigned the task of “promoting” nuclear energy, but the NRC’s task of licensing radioactive material was never intended to create a barrier that needlessly increases costs and slows progress. That is especially the case when taxpayer dollars are being wasted in an overly burdensome regulatory morass.
Nuclear energy supporters that are not licensees or applicants have an important role to play. Our participatory efforts are not limited by concerns about subtle regulatory retaliation that might be delivered in response to a public comment or complaint. As concerned and informed members of the public, we can provide countervailing pressure that might help the NRC achieve a better balance in performing its mission. They need to hear from knowledgable, unabashed people who do not work for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The interview lasted an hour and there is more material to discuss, but this post is long enough already.