Is NRC rushing critical vote for Magwood?

NRC Commissioner William Magwood 's term is ending in controversy--of course.

NRC Commissioner William Magwood ‘s term is ending in controversy–of course.

Why is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission seemingly rushing its critical vote on its new radioactive waste policy? This isn’t just routine Commission business. It’s a key vote that will clear the way for resumption of licensing activities for both new reactors and license renewals.

The issue arises because controversial NRC Commissioner William Magwood’s last day on the NRC is August 31. Yet the Commission has tentatively scheduled this vote for August 26–even though it wasn’t expected until October. 34 environmental and clean energy organizations have repeatedly pressed the case that Magwood, who is leaving for a job as chief of Europe’s Nuclear Energy Agency–a body that promotes rather than regulates nuclear power–faces a serious conflict of interest.

The NRC is a regulatory body; it is prohibited from promoting nuclear power. Magwood is thumbing his nose not only at his critics, but at the entire concept of separating regulation and promotion. For background on the Magwood controversy, see GreenWorld here and here.

The real question is: why is the rest of the NRC apparently letting him get away with it?

In 2012, a federal court threw out the NRC’s “waste confidence” rule. That rule formed the underpinning for all NRC licensing decisions; it basically stated that the NRC had confidence that radioactive waste would always be stored or disposed of safely–despite the fact that no permanent solution for radioactive waste storage has been found and the only permanent waste project so far proposed and investigated–Yucca Mountain, Nevada–was ended by President Obama in 2009.

The court found that with no alternative to Yucca in place, the NRC could not be “confident” of permanent disposal. Moreover, the court ruled that the NRC had no technical basis for asserting that current on-site storage practices in fuel pools and dry casks would be safe for the indefinite future. This ruling forced the current moratorium on licensing.

A packed meeting on the "waste confidence" rule in San Luis Obispo, CA, November 2013.

A packed meeting on the “waste confidence” rule in San Luis Obispo, CA, November 2013.

Since then, the NRC has been rewriting its rule (and dropping the “waste confidence” name entirely). Hearings–many packed with concerned people–were held across the country. The NRC received some 30,000 comments on its proposal. For background on the hearings and the issues raised in them and the comments, go to the Waste Confidence page on NIRS’ website.

Dismayingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the NRC’s proposal–the one that will be voted on–comes to the same conclusion as its previous rule: when it comes to radioactive waste, don’t worry, be happy. Everything will be just hunky-dory.

Commissioner Magwood is expected to enthusiastically support this new rule.

We don’t, of course, know how the NRC will vote. Right now, there are only four Commissioners in office (Commissioner Apostalakis’ term ended June 30). A conceivable (though perhaps unlikely) 2-1 vote against the proposal could become a 2-2 tie with Magwood’s vote in favor. How would that benefit the Commission?

Even more importantly, how would that benefit the public?

Without Magwood, the vote will be either 3-0 or 2-1, on one side or the other. With Magwood, it could become 4-0, 3-1, or 2-2. In the first two cases, Magwood’s vote would be unnecessary. In the last case, it would be highly disruptive and lead to even less public trust in the NRC than the pitiful level that exists now.

So, once again, why is the NRC scheduling a vote seemingly for the benefit of Magwood, and not the Commission itself or the public?

That’s why those 34 organizations yesterday sent a letter to the NRC urging it to postpone the vote until after Magwood has left the NRC. It’s just common sense. Establishment of a new radioactive waste policy and resuming licensing of nuclear reactors is a major step for the agency, and the public. Such an action shouldn’t be subject to the enormous cloud of suspicion and distrust that will inevitably result from a rushed vote.

We should note that even assuming the NRC votes to move ahead with its new–and from a technical basis highly flawed–proposal, that’s not likely to be the end of the matter. Expect lawsuits and much more activity on the issue in the coming weeks and months.

Michael Mariotte

August 22, 2014


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4 thoughts on “Is NRC rushing critical vote for Magwood?

  1. Fred Zyphel

    Regarding the waste confidence rule, are we to understand that when the environmental impact statement finds that storage of spent fuel at reactors generally has only small potential environmental effects in a host of areas, such as air quality, groundwater quality, public health and geology – that only applies to cannisters sitting above ground or in cooling pools, but not to cannisters buried 1200 ft. underground?

  2. Fred Zyphel

    Oh, and Magwood is going to Europe, right? I mean the one on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, right? Like, Paris France? Didn’t Harry Reid’s newest nominee to be a commissioner just come off a plum (payoff) job in Paris for covering Greg Jaczko’s legal posterior before the House? Can’t wait to see if there is a “conflict” issue raised with him.

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      It’s always amusing to see how quickly nuclear advocates turn on their own. In this case, Mr. Zyphel is attacking the nomination of Jeffrey Burns to the NRC–a guy who has spent his entire career defending the nuclear industry at the NRC, followed by a two-year appointment at the Nuclear Energy Agency–the same organization Magwood is leaving to become the head of. Apparently nuclear advocates will never forgive anyone who happened to work for former NRC chair Greg Jaczko–the first NRC chair to ever believe, and act upon the notion, that nuclear safety is the Commission’s primary responsibility.

      The apparent revolving door between NEA and NRC is of concern to us, and we raised that concern in our post about Burn’s nomination to the agency:

      But nuance is not the nuclear advocates’ strong point. Having worked at the NEA is not in itself a disqualifying attribute to be an NRC Commissioner. Magwood is being criticized–correctly–for continuing to vote on nuclear safety issues while seeking, and then after accepting, the top job at the NEA–which is a nuclear promotional agency. The NRC is forbidden by its charter from promoting nuclear power; it’s job is to regulate nuclear power. Mr. Burns will not be voting on Commission issues until after he is confirmed by the Senate, at which point he will no longer be working for the NEA. There is no conflict of interest there.

  3. Pingback: The French Revolving Door; Radioactive Waste Bed: Nuclear Blown with the Wind? They’ll Think About It Another Day or They Don’t Give a Damn? | Mining Awareness Plus

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