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SHOULD NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSIONERS BE HELD TO A HIGHER STANDARD OF NEUTRALITY?

When U.S. Supreme Court Justices appear before the Senate for confirmation hearings, they are never -– never -– asked respond to questions on how they would vote in specific cases. Thus, a whole line of Supreme Court nominees have dutifully responded that they have no preconceptions and will only follow the letter of the law when it comes to deciding hot-button issues such as abortion and gun control.

Yet when three of the present five Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners went through a joint confirmation hearing earlier this year, they were asked specifically if they would “second-guess” the Department of Energy on the biggest hot-button issue on the nuclear energy platter -– the fate of Yucca Mountain.

In confirmation hearing testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on February 9, 2010, there was this "brief exchange" with Senator Barbara Boxer, as follows:

Senator Boxer:

Now, I have a question here for all three of you from Senator Reid. You can just answer it yes or no. If confirmed, would you second guess the Department of Energy’s decision to withdraw the license application for Yucca Mountain from NRC’s review?

Mr. Magwood: No.

Senator Boxer: Okay. Anybody else?

Mr. Apostolakis: No.

Mr. Ostendorff: No.

Senator Boxer: Thank you. I think he will be very pleased with that.

What’s going on?  Should NRC nominees be able to invoke the same standards of neutrality as other regulatory or judicial nominees? 

Has the NRC — which now is comprised of three former U.S. Senate staffers, including a former staff member handpicked by the Senate Majority Leader as well as a former Clinton and Bush political appointee — become completely politicized? 

Or is it unrealistic or even mistaken to expect NRC Commissioners to be uncommitted, apolitical arbitrators in the first place — given that they are appointed on the basis of a political formula, which dictates that the President’s party controls three out of five seats, including the Chairmanship? 

What is the impact of this growing politicalization on the agency’s integrity, objectiveness and credibility?

Join the Townhall debate!

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42 Responses to “SHOULD NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSIONERS BE HELD TO A HIGHER STANDARD OF NEUTRALITY?”

  1. Mrs. Robinson Says:

    With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, where have you gone Dale Klein, the nation turns its lonely eyes to you… There is absolutely no question that he would have handled the Boxer question differently.

    How quickly they have fallen. What faith can we have in the current Chairman and his new crew to provide objectivity and leadership — God forbid — in a safety crisis? Will they be checking into the Congress at every turn and measuring political tea leaves?

  2. Mrs. Robinson Says:

    With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, where have you gone Dale Klein, the nation turns its lonely eyes to you… There is absolutely no question that he would have handled the Boxer question differently.

    How quickly they have fallen. What faith can we have in the current Chairman and his new crew to provide objectivity and leadership — God forbid — in a safety crisis? Will they be checking into the Congress at every turn and measuring political tea leaves?

  3. Mrs. Robinson Says:

    With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, where have you gone Dale Klein, the nation turns its lonely eyes to you… There is absolutely no question that he would have handled the Boxer question differently.

    How quickly they have fallen. What faith can we have in the current Chairman and his new crew to provide objectivity and leadership — God forbid — in a safety crisis? Will they be checking into the Congress at every turn and measuring political tea leaves?

  4. Hope Springs Says:

    If,

    1) The Commission sustains or impasses over the ASLB decision (meaning it stands); and

    2) The folks who recklessly put them into this difficult position in the nominations hearing don’t make the cut this November

    We can all move on from this sorry turn-of-events.

  5. Hope Springs Says:

    If,

    1) The Commission sustains or impasses over the ASLB decision (meaning it stands); and

    2) The folks who recklessly put them into this difficult position in the nominations hearing don’t make the cut this November

    We can all move on from this sorry turn-of-events.

  6. Hope Springs Says:

    If,

    1) The Commission sustains or impasses over the ASLB decision (meaning it stands); and

    2) The folks who recklessly put them into this difficult position in the nominations hearing don’t make the cut this November

    We can all move on from this sorry turn-of-events.

  7. Hope and Change Says:

    Leaving aside the Supreme Court, I can not see prospective regulators of the NRC’s ilk in the safety orbit — e.g. FAA, NTSB — being pressed in a similar manner. Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call for all parties that will result in the NRC being treated with the independence and respect it must now re-earn.

  8. Hope and Change Says:

    Leaving aside the Supreme Court, I can not see prospective regulators of the NRC’s ilk in the safety orbit — e.g. FAA, NTSB — being pressed in a similar manner. Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call for all parties that will result in the NRC being treated with the independence and respect it must now re-earn.

  9. Hope and Change Says:

    Leaving aside the Supreme Court, I can not see prospective regulators of the NRC’s ilk in the safety orbit — e.g. FAA, NTSB — being pressed in a similar manner. Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call for all parties that will result in the NRC being treated with the independence and respect it must now re-earn.

  10. Don B Says:

    The most troubling issue is not that Boxer/Reid posed the question (which is about par for the course here), but that the nominees, it appears, knew the question was coming and with foresight responded in such a weak-kneed manner. No profile in courage here. Confirmation assured. Damage done.

  11. Don B Says:

    The most troubling issue is not that Boxer/Reid posed the question (which is about par for the course here), but that the nominees, it appears, knew the question was coming and with foresight responded in such a weak-kneed manner. No profile in courage here. Confirmation assured. Damage done.

  12. Don B Says:

    The most troubling issue is not that Boxer/Reid posed the question (which is about par for the course here), but that the nominees, it appears, knew the question was coming and with foresight responded in such a weak-kneed manner. No profile in courage here. Confirmation assured. Damage done.

  13. Capitol Dome Says:

    The Congressional-NRC line has always been historically thin compared to other regulatory agencies — perhaps because of the shuttling of Commissioners to Rockville from Capitol Hill and perhaps because of a generally mediocre farm team.

    Remember the Keating Five? Doubtful that if it had been the NRC rather than FHLBB the outcome would have been the same despite the seriousness of mission and stakes.

    An internet refresher:

    In 1989, the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, Calif., collapsed. Lincoln’s chairman, Charles H. Keating Jr., was faulted for the thrift’s failure. Keating, however, told the House Banking Committee that the FHLBB and its former chief Edwin J. Gray were pursuing a vendetta against him. Gray testified that several U.S. senators had approached him and requested that he ease off on the Lincoln investigation. It came out that these senators had been beneficiaries of $1.3 million (collective total) in campaign contributions from Keating.

    This allegation set off a series of investigations by the California government, the United States Department of Justice, and the Senate Ethics Committee. The ethics committee’s investigation focused on five senators: Alan Cranston (D-CA); Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ); John Glenn (D-OH); John McCain (R-AZ); and Donald W. Riegle, Jr. (D-MI), who became known as the Keating Five.

    After months of testimony revealed that all five senators acted improperly to differing degrees, the senators continually said they were following the status quo of campaign funding practices. In August 1991, the committee concluded that Cranston, DeConcini, and Riegle’s conduct constituted substantial interference with the FHLBB’s enforcement efforts and that they had done so at the behest of Charles Keating. The committee recommended censure for Cranston and criticized the other four for “questionable conduct.”

  14. Capitol Dome Says:

    The Congressional-NRC line has always been historically thin compared to other regulatory agencies — perhaps because of the shuttling of Commissioners to Rockville from Capitol Hill and perhaps because of a generally mediocre farm team.

    Remember the Keating Five? Doubtful that if it had been the NRC rather than FHLBB the outcome would have been the same despite the seriousness of mission and stakes.

    An internet refresher:

    In 1989, the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, Calif., collapsed. Lincoln’s chairman, Charles H. Keating Jr., was faulted for the thrift’s failure. Keating, however, told the House Banking Committee that the FHLBB and its former chief Edwin J. Gray were pursuing a vendetta against him. Gray testified that several U.S. senators had approached him and requested that he ease off on the Lincoln investigation. It came out that these senators had been beneficiaries of $1.3 million (collective total) in campaign contributions from Keating.

    This allegation set off a series of investigations by the California government, the United States Department of Justice, and the Senate Ethics Committee. The ethics committee’s investigation focused on five senators: Alan Cranston (D-CA); Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ); John Glenn (D-OH); John McCain (R-AZ); and Donald W. Riegle, Jr. (D-MI), who became known as the Keating Five.

    After months of testimony revealed that all five senators acted improperly to differing degrees, the senators continually said they were following the status quo of campaign funding practices. In August 1991, the committee concluded that Cranston, DeConcini, and Riegle’s conduct constituted substantial interference with the FHLBB’s enforcement efforts and that they had done so at the behest of Charles Keating. The committee recommended censure for Cranston and criticized the other four for “questionable conduct.”

  15. Capitol Dome Says:

    The Congressional-NRC line has always been historically thin compared to other regulatory agencies — perhaps because of the shuttling of Commissioners to Rockville from Capitol Hill and perhaps because of a generally mediocre farm team.

    Remember the Keating Five? Doubtful that if it had been the NRC rather than FHLBB the outcome would have been the same despite the seriousness of mission and stakes.

    An internet refresher:

    In 1989, the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, Calif., collapsed. Lincoln’s chairman, Charles H. Keating Jr., was faulted for the thrift’s failure. Keating, however, told the House Banking Committee that the FHLBB and its former chief Edwin J. Gray were pursuing a vendetta against him. Gray testified that several U.S. senators had approached him and requested that he ease off on the Lincoln investigation. It came out that these senators had been beneficiaries of $1.3 million (collective total) in campaign contributions from Keating.

    This allegation set off a series of investigations by the California government, the United States Department of Justice, and the Senate Ethics Committee. The ethics committee’s investigation focused on five senators: Alan Cranston (D-CA); Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ); John Glenn (D-OH); John McCain (R-AZ); and Donald W. Riegle, Jr. (D-MI), who became known as the Keating Five.

    After months of testimony revealed that all five senators acted improperly to differing degrees, the senators continually said they were following the status quo of campaign funding practices. In August 1991, the committee concluded that Cranston, DeConcini, and Riegle’s conduct constituted substantial interference with the FHLBB’s enforcement efforts and that they had done so at the behest of Charles Keating. The committee recommended censure for Cranston and criticized the other four for “questionable conduct.”

  16. Alpha Soup Says:

    It’s well known that the industry traded Yucca Mountain for loan guarantees and a promise that Jaczko wouldn’t be named Chairman. This falls into the “be careful what you ask for because you might get it” department. The implications are indeed myriad and a net negative for the U.S. Renaissance.

  17. Alpha Soup Says:

    It’s well known that the industry traded Yucca Mountain for loan guarantees and a promise that Jaczko wouldn’t be named Chairman. This falls into the “be careful what you ask for because you might get it” department. The implications are indeed myriad and a net negative for the U.S. Renaissance.

  18. Alpha Soup Says:

    It’s well known that the industry traded Yucca Mountain for loan guarantees and a promise that Jaczko wouldn’t be named Chairman. This falls into the “be careful what you ask for because you might get it” department. The implications are indeed myriad and a net negative for the U.S. Renaissance.

  19. Wag the Dog Says:

    So Pogo was right, “we have met the enemy and it is us”?

  20. Wag the Dog Says:

    So Pogo was right, “we have met the enemy and it is us”?

  21. Wag the Dog Says:

    So Pogo was right, “we have met the enemy and it is us”?

  22. Michael Says:

    None of this should come as any big surprise. The nuclear industry’s strategy has been steadfastly consistent thru the years — circle the wagons and fire inward. The NRC Commissioners and their fumbling of the ball in the clutch are just the latest manifestations. So goes the Renaissance.

  23. Michael Says:

    None of this should come as any big surprise. The nuclear industry’s strategy has been steadfastly consistent thru the years — circle the wagons and fire inward. The NRC Commissioners and their fumbling of the ball in the clutch are just the latest manifestations. So goes the Renaissance.

  24. Michael Says:

    None of this should come as any big surprise. The nuclear industry’s strategy has been steadfastly consistent thru the years — circle the wagons and fire inward. The NRC Commissioners and their fumbling of the ball in the clutch are just the latest manifestations. So goes the Renaissance.

  25. BonnieR Says:

    To answer the question, NRC Commissioners should be held accountable to the highest possible standard given the unique enormity of their responsibilities.

    With regard to the precipitating event, it was insulting to see these three Commissioners used as re-election pawns by the U.S. Senate. But what else is new in Washington.

    As long as nuclear energy plants continue to be held to the highest safety standards with commensurate results, maybe that is all that matters.

    Conclusion: The glass remains half full.

  26. BonnieR Says:

    To answer the question, NRC Commissioners should be held accountable to the highest possible standard given the unique enormity of their responsibilities.

    With regard to the precipitating event, it was insulting to see these three Commissioners used as re-election pawns by the U.S. Senate. But what else is new in Washington.

    As long as nuclear energy plants continue to be held to the highest safety standards with commensurate results, maybe that is all that matters.

    Conclusion: The glass remains half full.

  27. BonnieR Says:

    To answer the question, NRC Commissioners should be held accountable to the highest possible standard given the unique enormity of their responsibilities.

    With regard to the precipitating event, it was insulting to see these three Commissioners used as re-election pawns by the U.S. Senate. But what else is new in Washington.

    As long as nuclear energy plants continue to be held to the highest safety standards with commensurate results, maybe that is all that matters.

    Conclusion: The glass remains half full.

  28. Hope and Change Says:

    My, my BonnieR, such rose-colored glasses.

    I would add some reactor design approvals — and maybe even hard targets for new plant licenses (plus maybe a chairman who mentions new plants as a priority) to your laundry list of NRC Commissioner barometers with safely being Job One needless to say

  29. Hope and Change Says:

    My, my BonnieR, such rose-colored glasses.

    I would add some reactor design approvals — and maybe even hard targets for new plant licenses (plus maybe a chairman who mentions new plants as a priority) to your laundry list of NRC Commissioner barometers with safely being Job One needless to say

  30. Hope and Change Says:

    My, my BonnieR, such rose-colored glasses.

    I would add some reactor design approvals — and maybe even hard targets for new plant licenses (plus maybe a chairman who mentions new plants as a priority) to your laundry list of NRC Commissioner barometers with safely being Job One needless to say

  31. Joffan Says:

    I guess the level of anxiety this causes depends on how you view the term “second-guess”. For me this not a matter of a considered judgement on a legal point but a opinion formed in the absence of real information. The requirement in the opinion to be delivered shortly is not second-guessing, not the way I use the term, and I don’t think anyone on either side of the debate should expect the new commissioners to be constrained by their confirmation statements to a particular decision.

  32. Joffan Says:

    I guess the level of anxiety this causes depends on how you view the term “second-guess”. For me this not a matter of a considered judgement on a legal point but a opinion formed in the absence of real information. The requirement in the opinion to be delivered shortly is not second-guessing, not the way I use the term, and I don’t think anyone on either side of the debate should expect the new commissioners to be constrained by their confirmation statements to a particular decision.

  33. Joffan Says:

    I guess the level of anxiety this causes depends on how you view the term “second-guess”. For me this not a matter of a considered judgement on a legal point but a opinion formed in the absence of real information. The requirement in the opinion to be delivered shortly is not second-guessing, not the way I use the term, and I don’t think anyone on either side of the debate should expect the new commissioners to be constrained by their confirmation statements to a particular decision.

  34. Catawba Cat Says:

    Joffan. Frankly, It’s hard to be laissez-faire about the Yucca confirmation hearing incident. It’s a travesty made worse by the fact that the three amigos took it hook, line and sinker. This reflects poorly on the stature of the Commission and the individuals themselves — worsened more so by the flimsy recusal defenses. I agree that a decision to sustain the ASLB decision will be a step toward healing this rupture.

  35. Catawba Cat Says:

    Joffan. Frankly, It’s hard to be laissez-faire about the Yucca confirmation hearing incident. It’s a travesty made worse by the fact that the three amigos took it hook, line and sinker. This reflects poorly on the stature of the Commission and the individuals themselves — worsened more so by the flimsy recusal defenses. I agree that a decision to sustain the ASLB decision will be a step toward healing this rupture.

  36. Catawba Cat Says:

    Joffan. Frankly, It’s hard to be laissez-faire about the Yucca confirmation hearing incident. It’s a travesty made worse by the fact that the three amigos took it hook, line and sinker. This reflects poorly on the stature of the Commission and the individuals themselves — worsened more so by the flimsy recusal defenses. I agree that a decision to sustain the ASLB decision will be a step toward healing this rupture.

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