By Michael Mariotte

The NRC Commissioners voted unanimously earlier this month to adopt its staff recommendation that the agency’s rules be changed to allow a “graded approach” on meeting the Atomic Energy Act’s prohibition on foreign ownership, control, or domination of U.S. nuclear reactors.

This cave-in to the nuclear power wasn’t entirely unexpected (I wrote about it months ago here), although the unanimous vote was certainly a disappointing showing from the two newest Commissioners, who might have been expected to take a more skeptical line toward the industry than some past Commissioners. But it’s too bad.

And it’s just more evidence that the NRC sees its mission less as regulating the nuclear industry–even when the law is clear, and there are few laws more clear-cut than this Section 103(d) of the Atomic Energy Act–than in accommodating the industry.

There have been few intervenor victories in nuclear licensing cases. There have been two cases where intervenors successfully used the law and NRC regulations to defeat proposed nuclear facilities. One was Urenco’s first stab at building a uranium enrichment plant in the U.S. (under the name Louisiana Energy Services, or LES) near Homer, Louisiana. The other was the proposed Calvert Cliffs-3 reactor on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

I was involved in both of those. In the LES case, we beat them on financial qualifications grounds. We proved to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board that the corporate structure of LES was such that the company could not demonstrate that it would have the financial means of cleaning up its mess after operation–especially if something went wrong and it had to close early.

We also won on environmental justice grounds. Then NRC-Chairman Ivan Selin had committed the agency to complying with President Clinton’s 1995 executive order on environmental justice, which prohibited siting of major facilities where it would have a disproportionate impact on minorities and the poor. Selin didn’t have to do that; the NRC is an independent agency and can’t be forced to follow executive orders. But I knew Selin, and I know he believed in it. And the licensing board, after hearing the evidence we presented, issued the first, groundbreaking order completely denying LES’ application on the grounds that the site not only would have a disproportionate impact–but that the site was chosen for exactly that reason.

I should be clear when I say “we” in this case, I don’t mean me. I helped, but it was attorney Diane Curran in Washington, and Nathalie Walker of what was then Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now EarthJustice) in New Orleans, and experts like Dr. Arjun Makhijani and Michael Sheehan, who comprised the grand “we.”

After we won (and later beat Urenco proposals to build in Tennessee and Alabama to boot, though we lost in New Mexico and the plant is operating–17 years later than planned), the NRC changed its financial qualifications rule, and when Selin left dropped its commitment to environmental justice.

In the NRC’s view, regulations are made to facilitate licensing, not to be used by the public rabble …read more

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