SEJ urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on March 28, 2005, to moderate its proposed expansion of the definition of information to be kept secret as "Safeguards Information" (SGI).
In formal comments submitted on a regulation proposed by NRC, SEJ said: "We are concerned ... that the proposed rule ... only fortifies a secrecy regime which in the end may have an effect the opposite of what is intended - diminishing true safety and security rather than enhancing it; hiding vulnerabilities rather than eliminating them; masking performance failures rather than correcting them; and weakening public oversight and accountability rather than strengthening them."
The Atomic Energy Act (first enacted in 1954) authorizes NRC to withhold certain information related to the security of civilian nuclear facilities as SGI (see Section 147). This information is not "classified" under the National Security Classification System.
The NRC proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on Feb. 11, 2005. It would expand NRC's existing rule for the protection of SGI to cover additional licensees, information, and materials not currently specified in the regulations.
The proposal comes at a time when NRC has taken offline and removed from most public access a significant share of the documents related to its regulatory activities that were once publicly available online. NRC yanked some 700,000 documents on Oct. 25, 2004 - ironically in response to news media publicizing documents from the library that terrorists could use to find radioactive materials for a "dirty bomb."
The agency has been sorting through the withdrawn documents and has since restored public and online access to some of them. A major share of basic non-SGI information related to NRC's nuclear licensing decisions, however, remain unavailable to press and public while still available to the regulated industry.
The SGI system allows few if any opportunities for the public to appeal or challenge NRC's discretionary judgments about what information to withhold. Even Congressional oversight of those NRC decisions is impossible, because NRC withholds the information from Congress as well as the public.
The wisdom and disinterestedness of those NRC secrecy decisions recently came into question when the Washington Post revealed that the NRC was trying to keep the National Academies of Science (NAS) from releasing an unclassified version of a Congressionally-mandated study on the safety and security problems arising from spent nuclear fuel.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who has campaigned aggressively for better nuclear safety and more NRC accountability, charged in a statement that he "believes that the Commission's desire to prevent public access to the NAS report is based on the fact that it disagrees with the NAS' conclusions, not on any legitimate security concerns."
- Full Text of SEJ letter to NRC of March 28, 2005.
- Previous Stories: "NRC Pulls Document Library, Regulatory Docket, from Web Site," WatchDog of Nov. 3, 2004; "NRC Restores Limited Number of Documents to Web," WatchDog of Nov. 17, 2004.
- Rep. Markey: Web page on nuclear safety, security, and information issues.
- "Proposed Rule: Protection of Safeguards Information," Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Federal Register, Feb. 11, 2005, pp. 7196-7217. NRC release and further related information.
- "Storage of Nuclear Spent Fuel Criticized; Science Academy Study Points to Risk of Attack," Washington Post, March 28, 2005, by Shankar Vedantam.
- "Agencies Fight Over Report on Sensitive Atomic Wastes," New York Times, March 30, 2005, by Matthew L. Wald (paid archive/free preview).