Idea for the NRC

Sunday, March 23, 2008

During the 1990s, no one in New England was more critical of nuclear power plant safety, or more of a pain in the neck about it, than Steve Comley. What a pest. The head of a nuclear whistleblowers organization called We the People, Comley tried to button-hole politicians and tell them about what he believed to be precarious situations at nuclear plants. He provided a forum for nuclear-plant workers, and even for some staff members at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who wanted to speak out anonymously. And he used to pepper news organizations, in grammatically challenged letters, with what he said was insider information about poor management at nuclear power plants — especially at Northeast Utilities plants in Connecticut.

Comley was arrested for making a fuss about Seabrook Station on the floor of the New Hampshire Legislature. He was arrested for trying to hand then-president George H.W. Bush a letter at a Nashua restaurant. He was picked up bodily and thrown out of Bob Dole’s campaign bash on primary election day 1996. He was brushed off by President Clinton, to whom he wrote repeatedly, and by Shirley Ann Jackson, then head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who refused to meet with him.

But Comley was on to something.

He showed up in Time magazine, which did a devastating cover story charging: “Two gutsy engineers in Connecticut have caught the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a dangerous game that it has played for years: routinely waiving safety rules to let plants keep costs down and stay online.” Time’s principal sources were Comley and his whistleblowers, the people and information he had been trying to persuade politicians to take seriously for years. CNN did a similar report. An independent audit of Northeast Utilities was conducted by the state of Connecticut, and it was damning. The NRC issued some tough new rules.

It was quite the scandal. But scandals fade.

Now Comley is back. After spending a decade in Florida, raising Cain about unrelated matters, he has again turned his attention to nuclear power. Despite the Time story and its aftermath, he says, for years the NRC has allowed dozens of U.S. nuclear plants to use counterfeit and substandard parts. Now he’s concerned because the commission is making plans to allow the construction of 50 more nuclear plants. Comley says We the People really has the goods on laxness at the NRC. All it needs is a major news organization with the time and resources to blow the top off the agency. He’s now firing off awkward letters and e-mails to that effect on a regular basis.

All of which brings us to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, over the river in Vernon, Vermont. In 2006, the NRC allowed Vermont Yankee to increase its power output, despite appeals from concerned neighbors asking that an independent safety inspection be done first. Now the NRC is on the verge of granting the plant a 20-year extension of its operating license, which is supposed to expire in 2012.

Area legislators in Chesterfield, Hinsdale and Winchester have appealed for federal help to have the plant inspected by independent experts. Massachusetts officials, including that state’s attorney general, have made similar appeals, as has the governor of Vermont and the Vermont Senate. Legislation to let neighboring states request — but not require — independent safety assessments for all nuclear plants is supported in the U.S. House by Peter Welch of Vermont, Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire and Edward Markey and John Olver of Massachusetts. A companion bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

But, amid all this activity, Steve Comley has a different idea. In recent weeks he has been trying to interest Senators Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama in his causes, asking them to join him in demanding a different inspection effort. If we can’t get independent investigations of aging nuclear plants, how about an independent investigation of the NRC itself?

Here’s sample prose from a recent letter:

“Recent NRC rules streamline the nuclear plant licensing & re-licensing process by limiting public participation, lowering safety inspections & quality assurance standards applicable to nuclear components form (sic) nuclear to commercial grade in new facilities to reduce construction costs & time.”

When Comley similarly warned about problems with nuclear plants back in the 1990s, a lot of respectable folks — politicians, utility spokesmen, most reporters and editors — wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Heck, the guy doesn’t know his “and” from his ampersand. But Comley and his whistleblowers were right on the money.

An independent investigation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission? Why not?