The legitimacy of the agency is being challenged by people who disrupt its meetings
On February 19, 2015, an NRC public meeting held in Brattleboro, VT, descended into darkness, eclipsing reason and civility, as people bent on disrupting the proceedings succeeded beyond their wildest dreams while also bullying people who wanted to testify at the hearings.
See also ANS Nuclear Cafe November 2015 for a further exploration of this topic including NRC’s blind spot about it.
The disturbing details were captured on video. Rod Adams, at the Atomic Insights blog, posted a 26 minute segment which shows just how bad things got that evening. Adams followed up with the NRC attending its Regulatory Information Conference (RIC) in March where agency officials told him they know they have a problem and pledged to do better.
This blog also weighed in on March 5 asking why hasn’t the NRC taken a more proactive approach to prevent their meetings there from running off of a cliff? I added that like a failure to vaccinate against the measles virus, this kind of anti-social behavior could spread to licensing hearings across the country. Indeed, a pro-nuclear group in California raised exactly that issue in a letter to the NRC about upcoming public meetings on seismic safety at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.
Ineffective outreach and failure to control large public meetings isn’t a new problem for the NRC. In May 2014 a group of protesters at hearing about Vermont Yankee interrupted the session by shouting that the NRC officials at the meeting “are lying and incompetent.” Their clear intention was to undermine the legitimacy of the agency in the public’s mind, and, therefore, diminish the validity of any decision it made as a result of the hearing.
NRC Task Force Report
So how much of a problem does the NRC have and what does it plan to do about it? It turns out the NRC appointed a task force to look into the problem which produced a report on the issue, paradoxically, in late January 2015 just weeks before the public melt down of its Vermont meeting.
The task force report (ADAMS citations ML15029A460, ML15029A463, and ML15029A465) acknowledges the agency is inconsistent in its efforts to conduct public outreach. Further, in the summary, the report notes that there are problems with the “attitudes” of NRC civil servants who conduct the public meetings about how useful they are, and the report also says leaving public meetings to technical staff “not skilled in the subject” is a problem. Overall, the NRC’s engineers have given public meetings a “low priority” relative to their other safety-related regulatory duties.
The reports provides a number of recommendations, some useful, and some just wishful, to remedy the situation. Nowhere in the document does it commit to providing funding to carry out them out. Without hard dollars behind them, this report could wind up keeping company with editions just like it that hark back more than a decade.
Not a new problem
The report cites previous efforts, some as far back as 2003, by the agency to improve its performance in these areas. What’s interesting about this realization that there is a long history of mis-steps in dealing with public meetings is that the task force decided not to ask the public what it thinks of the agency’s performance. This is really astonishing and seems to me to be clear evidence of the “attitude” problem cited in the report summary.
The reports goes on to cite several models of successful public engagement. Clearly, the task force understands what constitutes effective outreach. What the NRC needs more than practical advice on techniques is a cultural shift and the hiring of people who are expert at dealing with large public meetings on controversial subjects.
My experience with NRC meetings is that where there are large crowds, and a controversial issue at stake, NRC technical staff are terrified of saying anything beyond the most basic statements about the hearing process.
Why? The reasons, according to the report, are that their own management do not believe the hearings do any good which means those running the meeting have no upside to doing much beyond the bare minimum.
People bent on disrupting these meetings take advantage of the staff’s reluctance to assert control over the process by doing outrageous things like throwing what they claim are organic waste products and brazenly interrupting speakers.
Useful ideas need funding
The report does contain some useful ideas. Among them is a proposal to create a center of excellence within the agency to support technical staff who have to hold these events. Where that recommendation falls short is not also adding a “hands on” role for the staff from the center to go to hearings and help run them.
Coaching the preparation for a meeting are one thing, being on the ground is the next crucial step. Someone in the room has to know how to handle a crowd, a loud boisterous crowd, and, if necessary, call in the cops to haul away people who disrupt the meetings. There are lots of interim steps a good facilitator can take to calm people down, but a nuclear engineer is not the person who should be assigned this task.
There is a lot of thoughtful material in the report about policy and guidance, which is good because the agency’s managers need to know this is work they have to do and do well. Along with this, the agency needs standards to measure its effectiveness and feedback to managers via their performance rating and acknowledgement of their successes or mistakes in implementing public outreach.
It is not enough to pitch hot potatoes to NRC managers saying go forth and slay the public meeting dragon. The dragons will just eat the potatoes and move on.
There must be resources committed to training and especially recognition for excellent work in this area. The report outlines training for basic, intermediate, and advanced practices, but like other parts of the report, does not recommend a specific commitment or amount of funding to carry it out.
This issue is going to be a problem for the NRC which gets 90% of its funding from reimbursements paid by nuclear utilities. Carving out a center of excellence, and hiring people skilled in public participation, will compete for scarce budget dollars with regulatory oversight and reactor licensing activities.
Another puzzle is that, using a key word search, the NRC Office of Public Affairs, which is a source of the outreach expertise, isn’t mentioned in the report until page 17. The good news it the context is in the recommendation to improve internal agency guidance on how to hold public meetings.
- A role for industry beyond the bunker mentality
Finally, the licensed facilities which are the subject of the hearings are not off the hook just because the NRC published this report. Nuclear utilities have long practiced a “bunker mentality” which says that once they’ve given the regulatory agency the information it wants, their obligation to inform the public is over. There are some exceptions, but employees of nuclear utilities are often instructed not to speak at public meetings leaving that role to designated spokespersons.
While nuclear utilities have significant fiduciary responsibilities which limit what they can say and do in public, informing the public is never a poor choice, and goes as much with branding and marketing strategies as it does to support public hearings. It is just good business. That doesn’t mean a utility should pack a hearing with its staff, but it does mean that effective communication through various news and social media to the general public is a basic starting point.
The NRC and the nuclear industry need to cooperate to find new ways to insure that when people show up at a hearing, or public meeting, that they can feel safe and secure knowing that a civil process will take place. This means nuclear utilities need to help plan the meeting and have their people at the event to help run it. The utility needs to conduct outreach to the community, no less so that the NRC, when it comes to these kinds of public events.
- A role for federal law enforcement
Finally, the report needs to address the genuine security issue when the agency’s staff faces a determined effort to interrupt a hearing. At some point the quiet warnings from a meeting facilitator reach their limit and law enforcement needs to be brought into the picture.
The NRC needs to decide it will take action against people who ignore warnings not to disrupt a meeting. That means working with the US Attorney that has the relevant jurisdiction to bring criminal charges against those who interfere with the operations of a federal regulatory agency.
In terms of consequences, this does not mean ticket or an overnight stay in the local jail for a misdemeanor charge. It means that felony charges with the possibility of serious jail time are considered when assessing the circumstances and behaviors of people at a meeting like the one that took place in Brattleboro, VT.
One day, if left unchecked, one of these groups is going to do something that will hurt someone. It is time to draw a line in the sand before that tragic occurrence takes place.
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