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Published: Thursday, 12/15/2011

Grow up, NRC

When residents gather today at Monroe County Community College to discuss DTE Energy's application for a new reactor at its Fermi nuclear complex, they deserve to be heard by a federal agency that does not waver from its obligation to put safety ahead of politics. But a recent blowup at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission raises doubts about that commitment.

In a letter made public by the White House last week, four of the agency's commissioners expressed "grave concerns" about NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama's pick to head the agency. They accused Mr. Jaczko of bullying NRC staffers and causing "serious damage" to the commission with "increasingly problematic and erratic behavior."

Mr. Jaczko fired back, as has U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), a longtime agency critic who said the four NRC board members "conspired to delay and weaken nuclear reactor safety" after Japan's Fukushima disaster in March. Congress responded this week with two hearings: a contentious meeting yesterday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the accusations against Mr. Jaczko, and a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing planned today about post-Fukushima safety recommendations.

The Union of Concerned Scientists correctly noted that the bickering belies the fundamental problem: The agency isn't as effective a regulator as it could be.

People here know that first-hand. In November, 2001, NRC brass failed to heed the call of agency staffers for an emergency shutdown order at FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ottawa County. The agency was embarrassed locally and on Capitol Hill in early 2002, after Davis-Besse finally was shut down, when it was learned that the plant had been weeks, perhaps only days, from a catastrophic failure of its reactor head.

DTE's Fermi 2 nuclear plant has operated without as much drama as Davis-Besse. The Detroit-based company has been clear that its application for a possible Fermi 3 license was made to take advantage of $300 million in tax credits before they expire. DTE said it has not made a final decision on a new plant, which would cost about $15 billion.

Fermi 3 is the only new nuclear plant proposed for the Great Lakes region, and one of only two new plants proposed outside of the South. Today's NRC sessions about Fermi 3's application are from 1-4 p.m. and 7-10 p.m. in the community college's La-Z-Boy Center's Meyer Theater.

Theatrics are part government, but the high-level shenanigans at the NRC do not instill confidence in the agency, which has yet to shed its reputation as a nuclear industry cheerleader. The people in charge at the NRC should know better.



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