America is in the middle of a global pandemic. There are currently more than one million cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. and more than 67,000 people have died from it so far. Millions of Americans are sheltering in place, either voluntarily or because of state or local mandates. Roughly 30 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began. Small businesses are going bankrupt left and right with many more on the brink, and even retail giants like J. Crew are going under. Everyone has noticed that life in the U.S. has changed dramatically in the last few months.
Everyone, that is, except the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Despite the fact that the pandemic has turned much of the country upside down, the NRC continues with a business-as-usual approach to regulating the nuclear industry. In a recent call, the NRC discussed with industry representatives the need to prioritize certain actions by the commission due to Covid-19—but no thought was given to the virus’ impact on public participation in these decisions.
Right now, many of the usual avenues for public participation and debate about the NRC’s decisions are closed to most Americans. Public hearings and similar events that would usually give communities an opportunity to weigh in on important nuclear regulatory decisions can’t be held in the middle of a global pandemic.
As for comment periods, many Americans—especially women—simply don’t have the bandwidth to submit them due to the stress and practical obstacles associated with the outbreak. ‘Shelter in place’ means the NRC is making decisions that affect the health and safety of millions of Americans behind closed doors and behind their backs.
That’s why we, along with 81 other national, regional, and local advocacy organizations, sent an urgent letter to the NRC. In the letter, we remind the NRC that it has a responsibility, as well as a legal obligation, to gather input from the public and stakeholders about decisions that may affect them. Specifically, we asked:
…that all proceedings involving public participation be postponed until the COVID-19 crisis has formally been declared to have ended and has practically ended plus a minimum of 6 months for comment periods, in-person public meetings and other procedural and adjudicatory steps, once it is safe to carry them out.
Unfortunately, the NRC decided to ignore our request. This is unconscionable given that the NRC has a legal responsibility under the Atomic Energy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, to allow the public and stakeholders to participate meaningfully in the commission’s decision-making process.
Some of the decisions the NRC is moving ahead with, under cover of the Covid-19 crisis, include:Allowing radioactive waste to go to places that are NOT licensed to isolate nuclear waste; Transporting intensely radioactive waste on roads, rails, waterways across the country for decades to supposedly “Interim” Consolidated Storage site(s) from which it will have to move again.
The pubic has a right to have a say in the NRC’s decisions, but everyone right now is enmeshed in a pandemic of historic proportions. The right thing to do is to postpone all NRC proceedings that involve public participation until we’re in the clear from the pandemic.