By Nick Schwellenbach
The nuclear tragedy in Japan has led many in that country and ours to question the coziness of Japanese nuclear regulators with the Japanese nuclear industry. In this week’s New Yorker, Evan Osnos penned an article with one passage that resonated with the work we do here at POGO:
I frequently heard comparisons of Japan’s nuclear lobby to the American entanglement with defense contractors. As Tetsuo Jimbo, the Internet TV reporter, put it, “In the U.S., you have a big military industry. Well, we don’t have a big military, but we have a big nuclear industry.” He added, “Nuclear is a big industry with a few large companies, so there is a circle of industry leaders and regulators who try to protect and promote the nuclear program in Japan.”
We’re very familiar with the coziness of defense contractors with the Pentagon and Congress. But we’ve also done some gangbusters work on our very own nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). “‘Who the Hell is Regulating Who? [sic]’” is both the name of our 1996 report on the NRC’s abdication of its responsibility to protect the public and is a quote from the NRC’s Loren L. Bush, taken from his testimony before Congress in 1987 (by the way, while it's a great quote, it is ungrammatical—it should be “Who the hell is regulating whom?”). It’s not our most recent product that deals with the NRC, but it’s among our best.
Even when our report was released, the question of whether the NRC and the nuclear industry were too cozy was an old one. However, our report is still relevant. Questions still swirl about the NRC's ability to do its job. In 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) called the NRC a "moribund" agency in an interview with the editorial board of the Keene Sentinel, a newspaper in New Hampshire. "It's become captive of the industries that it regulates, and I think that's a problem," Obama said, as recounted in a Salon article.
Since 9/11, our work on the NRC has focused mostly on security rather than safety issues. But here too, we’ve seen NRC coziness with industry. At more than one of the congressional hearings sparked by POGO’s nuclear power plant security work, NRC has been criticized for deferring to industry too much. For instance, in April 2006, “Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal accused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Tuesday of being too cozy with the nuclear industry in determining the level of threat that nuclear facilities must be designed to withstand if the plants are to receive federal operating licenses,” according to one news account.
Nick Schwellenbach is POGO's Director of Investigations.
Image by Flickr user Voodoo Zebra, used under Creative Commons License.