Climate & Energy Blog

Revolving doors at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Posted Aug. 21, 2014 / Posted by: Katherine Fuchs

Today, Friends of the Earth and 33 of our allies wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission insisting that they postpone two important votes until after Commissioner William Magwood leaves for his new position at the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency. Since June, our coalition has been trying to guard against serious conflicts of interest involving Commissioner Magwood and his allegiance to his future employer. While the revolving door between the nuclear industry and the agency charged with regulating them is hardly news, the magnitude of Magwood’s current conflict rises above the mundane.

In the fall of 2013 NRC Commissioner Magwood threw his hat in the ring to become the next director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency, often called the NEA. In March 2014, Magwood announced that he got the job. The NEA’s primary mission is to promote nuclear energy and facilitate its expansion around the world. Friends of the Earth and our allies allege that Magwood’s pursuit and eventual acceptance of the the NEA position promoting nuclear power is in direct conflict with his role as a safety regulator at the NRC. This conflict is quite concrete when one considers that some of NEA’s members own or are applying to build reactors in the U.S. -- reactors that Magwood has an obligation to impartially regulate.

This isn’t the first time that NRC commissioners’ impartiality has been questioned. Prior to his appointment to the NRC, Magwood was an investor and staff member at several organizations known to shill for the nuclear industry. After his retirement in 2007, former Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield got in trouble for seeking employment from several nuclear reactor suppliers, eventually accepting a position with the Shaw group. During Mr. Merrifield’s job search, he twice voted on matters affecting his prospective employers. This is exactly the sort of conflict of interest that today’s letter seeks to avoid.

Two important votes currently loom before the NRC. Both are scheduled for August 26, just five days before Magwood’s retirement. The first vote will accept or reject a rule establishing the NRC’s confidence that spent reactor fuel can be safely stored above ground for many years in the absence of a permanent repository. The second vote will determine whether the NRC lifts an order suspending all reactor licensing and re-licensing decisions. The NRC self-imposed the suspension of reactor licensing in 2013 after the U.S. Court of Appeals vacated the old waste confidence rule.

These two votes are critically important for safety and environmental protection because, for far too long, the NRC has neglected the serious environmental and public health risks posed by continuing to produce nuclear waste without a permanent repository. The NRC Commissioners, seemingly lacking an appreciation for the consequence of these votes, are rushing both towards approval. The NRC’s deadline for instituting a new waste rule isn’t until October, so there’s no reason to hold the vote while the potentially partial Mr. Magwood still sits on the commission.

A Japanese parliamentary report called the triple meltdown at Fukushima a “man-made” disaster and revealed how collusion between industry and regulators laid the foundation for the catastrophe. If history can be any guide, then it is imperative that do everything we can to keep the nuclear industry foxes out of the regulatory hen house.

Photo credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Commissioner Magwood (right) tours the Point Beach Nuclear Plant in Wisconsin

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