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Nuclear agency to release thousands of secret documents

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Sep. 7, 2007  ·   The federal government’s nuclear energy agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has reversed a policy that…

Sep. 7, 2007  ·   The federal government’s nuclear energy agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has reversed a policy that until recently kept thousands of documents marked “official use only,” including details of a March 2006 radioactive fuel spill, from public view.

In a statement released by the agency Tuesday, the commission said that it will make publicly available documents “that were previously withheld for security reasons” relating to the oversight of private nuclear fuel companies operating in Tennessee and Virginia.

The new policy orders the release of inspection reports, facility performance reviews, enforcement actions, event reports and other relevant documents concerning Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., in Erwin, Tenn., and BWX Technologies in Lynchburg, Va.

This policy is the latest in a series of events that has unfolded since May, when the agency first notified Congress in a report published in the Federal Register of a high-enriched uranium solution spill at Nuclear Fuel Services’ Tennessee plant that occurred more than a year earlier, in March 2006.

Strong criticism ensued from members of Congress troubled by the NRC’s decision to wait 14 months to acknowledge the nuclear accident.

By June, the commission had directed its staff to “re-evaluate” the criteria used to justify withholding information regarding the facilities in Tennessee and Virginia. A month later, the NRC released the first documents detailing the events surrounding the radioactive leak.

“By abandoning the 2004 secrecy policy and replacing it with a policy which is used at all other NRC licensees, the NRC has struck a more reasonable balance between public disclosure and withholding documents which could compromise a plant’s security.” Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said in a statement posted on the committee’s Web site.

NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said the decision to review the three-year-old policy, which first cloaked the documents in secrecy was “driven by questions from staff and the commission.”

“I think there was recognition by the commission in that when the policy was implemented, it went too far in restricting information to the public,” Hannah said.

In voting to approve the new policy, NRC Chairman Dale E. Klein said in written comments, “While we must continue to be mindful of the national security aspects of these facilities, we must also remember that our regulatory oversight process should be performed in an open and transparent manner that instills public trust.”

Dingell made it clear that he has high expectations for the commission’s new openness policy.

“NRC has a lot of work ahead in reviewing the mountain of documents that have been kept from public disclosure and must now be released into the light of day,” Dingell said.

Hannah said, however, that the policy is not likely to result in a flood of documents regarding other private companies. “These are the only two facilities where the ‘official use only’ labeling was in use,” he said.


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