Kafka meets Heller at the NRC
By Richard Webster, Power-Cotchett Attorney
I am currently representing clients on the Jersey Shore in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission administrative process. This process nominally allows concerned citizens to petition for enforcement of NRC’s safety requirements. Unfortunately, the experience has led me to a greater appreciation for the insights of Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller into governmental processes rather than to greater confidence in the safety of our nation’s nuclear plants.
During Superstorm Sandy, the Oyster Creek nuclear plant suffered its worst flooding ever, 39 of the 45 warning sirens failed, and cracks were found in the reactor pressure vessel which contains the reactor itself. Our longstanding clients who live near the plant suffered major damage to their homes and businesses, but they realized it would have been far worse if the flood had been accompanied by a nuclear disaster, like at Fukushima. We agreed to help our clients try to ensure that Oyster Creek had fully addressed these issues before reopening. To do so, we filed an emergency petition with the NRC.
But the NRC simply reopened Oyster Creek without any explanation of how our concerns had been addressed. What happened next would have been comical if it wasn’t so frustrating. The NRC Petition Review Board listened to our concerns yet decided we could not hear the other half of the story — why the staff or the applicant thought our concerns were invalid. The Board also refused to instruct the staff to hand over documents showing whether the applicant had indeed addressed the problems properly. Thus, those with the most information about the safety issues we raised were silent, at least while we were within earshot.
Last week, the Board sent us a draft decision to comment on. That decision confirmed that the NRC’s presentation to the Board is confidential. But even more surprisingly, the decision failed to mention two of our key concerns about the need to revise the flood analysis for the plant and the failure to notify the NRC that evacuation had become impossible. When we pointed these omissions out, we quickly received another cursory e-mail stating that our concerns were invalid.
Today, we are going to make one last appeal for a proper explanation of how the flood analysis for the plant can remain valid when it doesn’t include precautions for the worst event possible. We don’t have very high hopes of getting that explanation. The Catch-22 is that the process keeps secret the very information the public requires to make its case. The trial provides an illusion of a real adjudicatory process, but the outcome is inevitably that the public failed to present sufficient information to substantiate safety concerns.
Showing how things really get done, after we embarrassed state officials at a public hearing and enlisted the support of New Jersey’s senators, Oyster Creek’s owner, Exelon, decided to “voluntarily” upgrade the warning sirens so that they will operate when the electricity grid is off. Another small improvement in nuclear safety achieved despite, rather than because of, the NRC.