Nuclear regulator is roasted on a spit turned by its critics
A BBQ is normally a time to set aside the cares of the world, with its multiple threats of the apparent inexorable pace of climate change, the rage of delusional terrorists, and a faltering economy that even has WalMart worried about its customers running out of money.
So what’s a newspaper to do for news? Well, if you are the New York Times you take a swing at a federal agency. In Washington, DC., you can throw a rock in any direction and hit some dysfunctional aspect of how the federal bureaucracy does its job. In today’s editions, the newspaper takes on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Twice touted as one of the best places to work in the government, it is portrayed as another toothless regulator with top appointed officials just waiting to jump into the arms of the very industry it is supposed to keep an eye on.
Three critics, no waiting
The article is based on wide ranging criticisms from three staunch critics of the agency. The first is George Mulley, Jr., a former senior staff member of the NRC’s Office of Inspector General. The second is Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner, and the third is David Lochbaum, a former training instructor at the NRC and head of a self-appointed nuclear watchdog office at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Mr. Bradford also has long standing ties with UCS.
The newspaper article is unbalanced in many ways. It quotes the three critics at length, but cites agency officials in just two instances. It appears Gregory Jaczko, the current chairman, was interviewed for the article since he is cited several times. Also, an email from the public affairs office is cited deep inside the article.
Nowhere is there any indication the newspaper sought out an independent voice to assess the charges of the critics or the defenses put forward by the agency. A brief and equivocal quote from Marvin Fertel at NEI comes at the end of a very long article.
Are there no scholars of regulatory agency performance that the newspaper could have talked to? What about former NRC Commissioners who might have different ideas? Why weren’t the other current NRC commissioners interviewed by the newspaper?
An ironic agenda
Instead, the newspaper pursues an agenda intending to paint a picture of an agency that is “well-intentioned, but weak . . . incapable of keeping close tabs on any industry to which it remains closely tied.”
This is a somewhat bizarre charge since many in the nuclear industry would not think of the current leadership in those terms. Gregory Jaczko, the chairman, (right) is a product of having worked as a political aide for the rabidly anti-nuclear Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). It is widely assumed that the only purpose Jaczko has at the NRC, who at the time of his appointment was an aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is to insure the Yucca Mountain license never sees the light of day.
Otherwise, neither Reid, nor apparently the White House, have any interest in what else Jaczko does, or doesn’t do, on his watch. Reid has one price for his support of Obama’s legislative agenda in the Senate, and that is no action on Yucca Mountain. With Jaczko in place, the deal was done.
It is ironic that Jaczko, who may have once had a fantasy of quietly gliding through his service at the NRC doing Reid’s bidding, now must defend the agency against the very critics he once was friendly with while in service to Rep. Markey.
Counter intuitive results from bad press
Why do newspapers like the New York Times publish articles like this one? The conventional wisdom is that the paper wants “reform” of lackluster agency performance. With the spectacular images of hydrogen explosions at Fukushima still on the mind of the news media, the thought is that perhaps the newspaper, and the NRC’s critics, have the noble purpose of preventing them here.
By holding up the red meat of purported wrong doings, the paper hopes Congress will take action to get the regulatory agency to run a tighter ship. The New York Times even compares the NRC’s performance to the Minerals Managements Service relative to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
In fact, running a tight ship is exactly what got the NRC into hot water in 1998. Then Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) castigated the agency for being too tough on nuclear utilities and then NRC Chairwoman Shirley Jackson picked up his stick to give her staff a thorough thrashing with it.
According to the New York Times, Jackson said in a speech to her staff that the industry had sent a clear message:
“That we are inefficient, that we over-regulate, that we inspect too much, assess too much, enforce too much, take too long on licensing actions and employ an overly restrictive body of regulation.”
What about the budget?
A strong regulatory agency should be prescriptive, pro-active, and funded to do its job. In fact, Congressional raids on the fees the nuclear utilities pay the government for the privilege of being regulated result in the money being diverted to the annual earmarking frenzy of the appropriations process. An agency that gets 90% of its money from the regulated industry has checkbook problems that the NY Times never touched in its article. You want independence, how about starting with the money issue?
If the New York Times, and the trio of critics that must have spent hours with the newspaper’s reporter as he wrote the story, must know, if you want resident engineers inspecting pipes, pumps, and valves at a reactor, you have to pay for them. Other than Dominici’s empty threat of cutting the agency’s budget, there isn’t a peep about the funding issue.
Revolving doors are a problem
The issue of a revolving door between industry and the regulator is illustrated by the case of a former NRC commissioner. According to the newspaper, Jeffrey S. Merrifield sought employment from several nuclear industry firms while still in government service and accepted travel reimbursements of $3,500 from them. No criminal or civil charges were filed against Merrifield following referral of the case to the Justice Department.
Mr. Mulley, the former NRC Inspector General staffer, told the New York Times he was “outraged” by the lack of action against Merrifield. He said he thought the government should have made an example of him. The feds didn't which may be why he took the issue to the New York Times.
While high level officials may come and go through Washington’s perpetual motion machine that rotates political appointments and industry positions, for most of the rest of the NRC staff, a federal job is a pretty good deal and not easily matched in private industry. If the UCS wants better leadership at regulatory agencies, Congress needs to provide better funding to pay for them.
The New York Times deserves criticism for its handling of the charge of conflict of interest put against NRC Commissioner William Magwood. According to informed sources, the newspaper did not speak with Magwood about the claim made by Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). Ms. Brian told the newspaper her group feels Magwood's industry experience would prevent him from acting independently in matters that came before the NRC.
The newspaper's failure to give Magwood an opportunity to respond to the charge from POGO is a shameful departure from the standards of ethics and fairness the newspaper claims to uphold.
What is the safest reactor?
In the end, the New York Times may actually produce exactly the opposite effect of what it might have as an outcome of the article. Instead of getting the agency to tighten its ship, the resulting level of congressional oversight will distract the five commissioners from doing their job and surely serve to demoralize the workforce.
Maybe what the critics of the NRC really want is to create a perception that the if the agency can’t do its job, that the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors should all be shut down. There is an old saying that the NRC’s vision of a safe reactor is one that is never built. Maybe now the Union of Concerned Scientists has a new mantra, and that is the safest reactor is one that never runs.
Turn out the lights. it’s time to say good night Lucy.
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