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Anti-nuclear groups call for immediate resignation of NRC commissioner

June 20, 2014

Courtesy of SNLFinancial:

By Matthew Bandyk

A number of environmental groups that oppose nuclear power are calling for the resignation of William Magwood IV, one of the five commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, saying his upcoming departure for a position at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, France, has “fatally compromised” his ability to be independent from the industry he regulates.

Magwood’s actions also speak to a larger issue of a conflict between, on the one hand, the federal government promoting organizations that try to improve the economics of nuclear energy and, on the other hand, considering safety regulations that may cost the industry large amounts of money, according to a lawyer representing the groups.A number of environmental groups that oppose nuclear power are calling for the resignation of William Magwood IV, one of the five commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, saying his upcoming departure for a position at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, France, has “fatally compromised” his ability to be independent from the industry he regulates.

Earlier this year, Magwood, a former scientist at Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC, announced that he would be leaving the NRC in the fall after a four-year tenure to become director of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency. The NEA has 30 member states and, according to its statute, “the purpose of the agency shall be to further the development of the production and uses of nuclear energy, including applications of ionizing radiations, for peaceful purposes by the participating countries, through co-operation between those countries and a harmonization of measures taken at the national level.” Toward those ends, the agency puts out research, such as a 2011 report about the business potential for small modular reactors to supply power to isolated areas.

But by applying for and accepting the position of NEA head, Magwood has tied himself to a pro-nuclear group, creating a conflict of interest with his duties as an objective regulator, according to a letter sent to the commissioner on June 18.

“In appearance and in actuality, you are now committed to an organization whose mandate to promote nuclear energy as well as the economic interests of its members is antithetical to the basic principles of the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 that safety, not economics, must be the NRC’s paramount consideration and that promotional policies shall be left to the U.S. Department of Energy,” the letter said. It was signed by 34 groups and individuals, many of whom have filed petitions to block the relicensing of nuclear plants or policies to help pay for the construction of new nuclear plants. The groups include the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Friends of the Earth, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Sierra Club Nuclear Free Campaign.

The NEA’s mandate to promote nuclear power would cause a “reasonable person” to question Magwood’s objectivity when, as an NRC commissioner, he must vote to approve or disapprove regulations on safety issues “that could significantly increase the cost of nuclear power production and thus limit its viability in the marketplace,” the letter said. Starting since at least September 2013, when the deadline for applications to the NEA position closed, Magwood had a “strong incentive” to improve his chances of getting the job “by avoiding safety decisions that would exacerbate nuclear power’s ongoing economic difficulties,” the groups said.

They pointed to one recent NRC vote on one of the costliest regulations facing the industry: whether reactors should more quickly move spent nuclear fuel out of the cooling pools in order to reduce the risk of a fire that could release radiation. An industry study found that the proposal, known as “expedited transfer,” could cost plant operators $4 billion over 10 years. The NRC staff concluded in a report that the safety benefits of expedited transfer do not outweigh the costs. In a May 27 vote, Magwood and three other commissioners approved the staff report.

But NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane was a dissenting voice, voting against the staff report and saying its analysis was inadequate. The staff did not consider all the natural and manmade events that could cause a spent fuel pool to drain, exposing the radioactive waste, Macfarlane wrote. She said the NRC should keep looking at proposals to transfer the fuel out of the pools within 10 years.

The letter asked Magwood not only to resign but also to retroactively disqualify himself from safety decisions made after applying to the NEA position, such as the spent fuel vote.

In addition, the groups want Magwood to publicly release his application to the NEA and any recommendations he received from U.S. officials. A statement that the commissioner made to a congressional subcommittee that he was the “U.S. government’s candidate” for the director of the NEA has the groups suspicious that the DOE and NRC may have actively promoted Magwood for the job. If that is the case, the involvement with the NEA “doesn’t represent the poor judgment of one commissioner but much larger institutional problems,” according to one of the attorneys who represents the environmental groups.

“You have a hard time regulating nuclear power while also promoting it,” attorney Mindy Goldstein said. “We don’t want these two things to be mixed up.”

A spokesman for the NRC said the agency had no comment on the letter but that Magwood has received the letter and will be making a written response to the authors.

 

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