Anti-regulation Discourses, Nuclear Safety, and the Role of STS

By William J. Kinsella

Despite the proliferation of issues marking the turbulent beginnings of the Trump presidency, many important questions have received little or no public attention. One question involves the future of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), whose stated mission, proclaimed on a banner at the top of the agency’s website, is “protecting people and the environment.” As anti-regulation discourses become increasingly normalized and budget priorities shift, actors in both government and the nuclear industry may soon be seeking changes that could impair that crucial mission. Perspectives from the field of science and technology studies (STS) may help anticipate and respond to the challenges ahead.

Following the 2011 disaster at Fukushima, critics pointed to regulatory laxity as a key factor in the meltdowns that followed the Tōhoko earthquake and tsunami. In Japan, those events are widely known as the “triple disaster” of “3-11.” For STS scholars, they demonstrate a convergence of environmental forces, technological vulnerabilities, and human failures. As we observe the sixth anniversary of Fukushima it is appropriate to ask: could such a thing happen in Trump’s America?

The trigger need not be an earthquake or tsunami; a more basic lesson from Fukushima involves our fundamental inability to envision all the things that can go wrong in a complex sociotechnical system. Charles Perrow’s well-known normal accidents theory stresses the challenges involved in tightly-coupled complex systems, while research efforts in the areas of safety culture and high-reliability organizations focus on organizational-level responses that can limit, without fully eliminating, such failures of imagination. Institutional checks and balances, such as those provided by the NRC, are another necessary component of the nuclear safety system. The US nuclear industry has worked to develop its own system of self-regulation, often arguing that it makes some of the NRC’s work redundant, and takes pride in its commitment to safety. However, STS scholarship has demonstrated that those efforts are inevitably in tension with economic demands. A strong and independent nuclear regulator is an essential counterbalance, and a government function that cannot be delegated.

Emerging Signals of Regulatory Change

A signal of changes that may be coming has already emerged. On January 26, with virtually no media attention beyond industry circles, Trump reshuffled the NRC by replacing its Chairman, whose term as a commissioner continues but whose authority and role are now more constrained. His replacement, a commissioner since her appointment by George W. Bush in 2008, has been regarded by many critics as the NRC’s most industry-friendly member. She has also shown limited interest in public transparency when compared to her peers, which is especially troubling because the Chairman (working through staff) serves as the NRC’s sole official spokesperson. Remarkably, six weeks later no press release regarding the leadership change had yet appeared on the agency’s website. President Obama failed to fill two vacant seats on the five-member Commission before the end of his tenure, so Trump is now in a position to name two additional commissioners with industry-friendly views. Those appointments would be subject to Senate confirmation and the nominees should receive careful scrutiny. Beyond the obvious political issues at stake, it would be helpful for that scrutiny to be informed by STS insights regarding the deep entanglements linking co-produced social, political, and institutional systems with technological and environmental materialities.

For example, Trump’s simplistic formula—for every new regulation, two must disappear—is particularly unrealistic and dangerous in the field of nuclear safety. Efforts to weaken the NRC’s regulatory framework would undermine the current basis for safety across the nation’s approximately 100 reactors as well as used fuel storage sites and other facilities under the agency’s purview. The existing body of regulations cannot be made to go away, because many of those systems and hazardous materials will be here for a very long time.

New regulations will in fact be necessary, as the industry seeks to move emerging reactor designs from conceptual and development stages to deployment across the U.S. and beyond.  Some industry actors view Trump’s election as a long-awaited opportunity to do so, but both the industry and the NRC have expressed concerns about the agency’s capacity to adapt its research, rule-making, and enforcement activities to these new designs. It is unlikely that the agency could do so safely in a climate of aggressive regulatory slashing and presumed downsizing.

Beyond the obvious political issues at stake, it would be helpful for that scrutiny to be informed by STS insights regarding the deep entanglements linking co-produced social, political, and institutional systems with technological and environmental materialities

Accommodating the industry’s view, the NRC has already embraced the language of “right-sizing,” “streamlining,” and “reducing regulatory burdens.” Recent commentary suggests that Trump’s federal hiring freeze would not affect the NRC, as it has already undertaken its own self-imposed freeze. Nevertheless, the future of NRC staffing remains uncertain at a time of shifting priorities. A continued freeze on new hires, or a possible, more drastic staffing reduction, could cripple the agency’s ability to develop the expertise needed for regulating a proposed next generation of reactors. Meanwhile, a climate of demoralization could lead to the loss of existing talent and institutional memory. Among the potential targets in a climate of global disengagement are the NRC’s international programs, another troubling prospect because of the agency’s historic role as a world leader and model for nuclear safety regulation.

Whether or not one considers nuclear power an appropriate energy option, independent regulatory capacity remains an essential need. Many aged reactors are moving toward decommissioning, and will require appropriate monitoring for decades as that lengthy process proceeds. Meanwhile, the industry seeks government subsidies to prolong the lifetimes of other reactors, and approvals to extend some reactor lifetimes beyond the duration governed by existing rules and risk models. Simultaneous, and somewhat contradictory, efforts are underway to reopen consideration of the Yucca Mountain high-level waste repository project, to establish new sites for extended interim storage of used nuclear fuel, and to embark on a “consent-based” siting process for alternative permanent repository facilities. All of these contexts pose unique regulatory challenges, expanding the NRC’s scope of work both quantitatively and qualitatively.

About the Economics

Anti-regulation rhetoric may suggest that cutting the NRC’s capacities will save taxpayer dollars, but that would be misleading. By law, currently only about twelve percent of the agency’s budget comes from the federal treasury—the NRC recovers the remaining costs through fees charged to the nuclear industry. This arrangement makes the NRC one of the most-cost effective regulatory systems in the government’s portfolio, but at the same time, it provides the industry with a strong motivation for aggressive lobbying to shrink the agency. Most cost savings would be privatized, going to the industry. Meanwhile, the increased risks to public health and safety, environmental protection, and the economic security of communities and regions affected by a potential nuclear calamity would be borne by citizens and taxpayers.

Suggesting the possibility of an American Fukushima may seem overly dramatic, but Japan bears witness to the consequences of under-regulating an inherently risky technology. To guard against such a catastrophe in the United States, lawmakers, public interest groups, and all of us must hold the Trump administration to the highest of standards in the area of nuclear regulation. The commissioners who oversee that effort must be single-minded in their commitment to safety, and the support for their mission must be robust. There are many other pressing issues at the beginning of the Trump presidency, but this one may capture our attention in a most unpleasant way if we do not attend to it first.

William J. Kinsella is a professor of communication at North Carolina State University, where his research and teaching address the overlapping areas of organizational communication, environmental and energy communication, rhetoric of science and technology, and rhetoric of public policy.