It worried me to learn that on Saturday, September 22, Allison Macfarlane, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and William Magwood, one of the four Commissioners who serve with Dr. Macfarlane on the five member Commission, held a private meeting with six representatives of groups that oppose the use of nuclear energy.
From all other reports that I have heard, Dr. Macfarlane has encouraged substantial improvements in the day to day working of the 4,000 member regulatory agency. In comparison to the tense situation that existed under her predecessor, the agency is once again a collegial place where people feel empowered to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal.
However, I remain leery about the future of nuclear energy in the United States with Dr. Macfarlane as the Chairman of the NRC. The NRC plays a vital role in enabling the economic use of nuclear energy, our safest and most capable alternative to burning ever increasing quantities of ever less abundant fossil fuel.
In addition to the two Commissioners, the meeting attendees included the following people:
- Gene Stone, of the San Clemente, CA-based group Residents Organized for a Safe Environment
- David Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service in Chicago, IL
- Linda Cataldo Modica of the Sierra Club in Jonesboro, TN
- Josh Nelson of Credo in Washington, DC
- Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information Resource Service in Takoma Park, MD
- Nancy Burton of the Connecticut Coalition against Millstone of Redding Ridge, CT
If there were minutes recorded during the meeting, I cannot find them. The NRC has a rule about public meetings and minutes, but it does not apply to situations where there are less than three Commissioners involved. A report in The Hill’s E2 Wire blog titled Anti-nuclear group finds little hope in NRC, presidential race indicates that the invited guests criticized the access they were given as a just a public relations gambit.
The Coalition Against Nukes snagged a Saturday sit-down with NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane and commissioner William Magwood. But the group denounced the agency, calling it “completely captured” by the Obama administration.
“The NRC is great at showing a nice face and trying to build relationships and congeniality,” Michael Leonardi, campaign coordinator with the Coalition Against Nukes, told The Hill on Friday. “I don’t expect anything to come out of it. They’re putting on a good face and pretending to listen to us, but they never do.”
However, that article brought flashbacks to one of my corresponding colleagues. He reminded everyone on his email list of a situation in the mid 1970s when Joan Claybrook was appointed as the head of the National Transportation Safety Board. Ralph Nader came out with loud criticism of Ms. Claybrook, helping to obscure the fact that they were close colleagues who had worked together for years at Congress Watch. The criticism from Nader gave Claybrook bureaucratic cover to implement harsher restrictions on the industry she was charged with regulating.
That reminder from one of my more mature colleagues supports my continuing skepticism about Dr. Macfarlane’s suitability as the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Dr. Macfarlane has a lot of friends and family in the antinuclear movement; her chosen circle of associates is not conducive to making good decisions about the best alternative energy source we have. I fear that the Saturday afternoon sit down was a harbinger of things to come.
My concerns were reinforced when I learned that Dr. Macfarlane has chosen Mary J. Woollen as her Director of External Engagement. Ms. Woollen spent ten years (January 2000 – May 2010) serving as the Executive Director of an organization called Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free.
I am not sure what the Director of External Engagement does, but the title indicates that the person in that position sets up meetings with citizens. It remains to be seen if someone who spent ten years directing an organization whose mission seems to be opposing every nuclear project at the Idaho National Laboratory – including production of valuable isotopes that enable space exploration – will assist in arranging a meeting with people who strongly support the use of nuclear technology.
However, I am willing to believe that Dr. Macfarlane is as dedicated an academic as she claims to be. People that do not represent the established nuclear industry but still have something important to say about nuclear energy need to speak up and ensure that Dr. Macfarlane is not allowed to surround herself with a chorus and does not settle into a mode of thinking that there are two “sides” to the energy discussion whose concerns need to be heard – the “industry” and the industry opposition.
Instead, we must work in our own ways to ensure that she realizes that the issues under her purview are vitally important but also complex. They cannot be addressed by narrowing the focus of the conversation or limiting the inputs received. For example, I sincerely hope that Dr. Macfarlane will take the time to read Laura Scheele’s excellent summary of a recent public meeting held in Chattanooga, TN where nuclear activists showed up to demonstrate our support for intelligently using plutonium as a valuable fuel source instead of disposing of it as a waste product.
Here is the comment that I posted on the NRC blog about the private meeting with the antinuclear activists. That post is misleadingly titled Spending a Saturday Afternoon at the NRC Listening to All Sides.
The scary thing about this blog post is the title, which implies that the meeting included “all sides”. Fortunately, the first paragraph admits that this particular meeting involved a completely one sided audience with invited guests who all represent groups that are opposed to the use of nuclear energy.
I hope that Chairman Macfarlane is ready and willing to engage in discussions with people who represent other aspects of the discussion, which has far more than two “sides”. I hope she will acknowledge that there are citizens that strongly support the use of nuclear energy as a competitor to coal, oil and natural gas. Unlike popular unreliables like wind and solar energy, nuclear fission has demonstrated that it can completely replace fossil fuel combustion when properly designed and implemented.
I’ve had the rare privilege of living in an “all nuclear all the time” world on deployments that lasted for months. Our nuclear propulsion plant was a modest sized machine that provided all of the power we needed to roam the oceans underwater – at high speeds if desired. It also supplied plenty of fresh water (produced by removing salt and other impurities from sea water), plenty of air conditioning, and power to spare for entertainment, food preservation, computers, and lighting. The compact fuel source that heated the water to make the power weighed a little more than my own body weight, yet it supplied all the energy needed to operate a 9,000 ton submarine for 14 years.
The world has overreacted to the non-fatal events at Fukushima. I am pretty sure the overreaction was fed by fossil fuel money used to help the media and government spread irrational fear, uncertainty and doubt.
The admittedly destroyed plants released just 100 kilograms or less of a relatively benign long lived isotope, resulting in concentrations that produce acceptably low radiation doses in almost every square meter of politically evacuated land area. The effects are far less damaging than the routinely accepted consequences of fossil fuel accidents. When nuclear plants operate well, they do not produce any gases that threaten the ability of the atmosphere to support life as we know it, that is a stark contrast to effect of their fossil fuel competition.
The Chairman must plan to listen to people who depend on the NRC to make correct technical judgements that will enable nuclear fission to help protect the environment, improve American security and make life safer for human beings.
Disclosure: Though I work at a nuclear energy company, I am not even in a management position. My thoughts and positions taken on Atomic Insights are my own and do not represent those of “the industry” or of my employer.
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (March 16, 2011) The lessons of Fukushima by Hugh Gusterson.
This article is an amazing piece of slanted writing from someone who is very close to the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It makes full use of the technique of damning with faint praise. Here is a sample quote:
We are probably moving toward a post-Fukushima world in which some countries will abjure nuclear energy while others expand it. Countries with other energy options, strong democratic structures, and powerful environmental movements will probably de-emphasize, and maybe eventually renounce, nuclear energy. Switzerland has already suspended plans to build new reactors, and Germany’s Angela Merkel, responding to large antinuclear protests, announced plans to close seven reactors pending further evaluation of their safety and to reconsider plans to extend the lives of Germany’s oldest reactors.
In the meantime, countries with weak environmental movements and weak regulatory norms seem to be proceeding as if nothing has happened. As the Fukushima nuclear disaster unfolded, Turkey announced plans to go ahead with two reactors, and we can surely expect China, Russia, and India to do the same.
Update: (Posted on 9/28/2012 at 0349) Nuclear Townhall: William Tucker – Chairman Macfarlane Goes to the Bullpen