Court Victory on Nukes Creates Transparency on Safety Exemptions at Indian Point
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: This 2nd Circuit decision in Brodsky v NRC is a turning point in our long-running struggle to end the collusion between the NRC and the nuclear industry. It will both protect and involve the public in key NRC health and safety decisions. Our primary concern has always been public health and safety, nowhere more important than with an Indian Point reactor with the worst health and safety record in the nation and located 28 miles from New York City.
Brodsky v. NRC is the federal litigation challenging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) practice of issuing "exemptions" to its own health and safety regulations at Indian Point, and to do so in complete secrecy. The plaintiffs argued that Federal law requires the NRC to notify and involve the public before it allows Entergy to violate NRC health and safety requirements.
On Jan. 6, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals issued its' decision on the matters argued last May in New York City. The Court agreed with the plaintiffs, and expressed grave concern about the NRC's ongoing practice of making safety decisions in secret.
The Appeals Court remanded the case to the District Court and required the NRC to appear and explain why public participation was "inappropriate or impracticable."
In other words, the Court has created a new legal standard and legal presumption in favor of public participation in "exemption" decisions. From now on the NRC must permit public participation or explain why it's not going to do so. This is a substantial victory because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such secret "exemptions" at Indian Point and at other reactors across the country which have weakened or evaded safety and health requirements. It's now possible to seek an accounting of those "exemptions" and challenge many of them.
The particular Indian Point "exemption" challenged in Brodsky v. NRC dealt with fire safety. NRC Rules require that the electric cables that control reactor shutdown in an emergency have fire insulation that lasts one hour. When tested, the insulation at Indian Point (and elsewhere) lasted 27 minutes. Rather than require Entergy to upgrade the insulation to meet the one hour requirement the NRC, at Entergy's request, issued an "exemption" that lowered the requirement to 24 minutes. It did so without notifying the public of its consideration of Entergy's application, or permitting the public to comment, or participate, or attend a public hearing.
By ending the secrecy of the "exemption" process the Court has created two important dynamics. First, it will be difficult if not impossible for the NRC to continue to use secrecy as a shield for decisions that are at best controversial and at worst truly dangerous. Second, we can begin to examine the true extent of "exemptions" at Indian Point and scores of other reactors. Both are important parts of making the NRC a fair and effective regulator.
Plaintiffs had also challenged the Indian Point "exemptions" as violations of other laws as well. While the 2nd Circuit declined to agree on some of those matters, plaintiffs are pleased that the core of their concerns have been favorably addressed. Plaintiffs will continue to vigorously participate in the continuing litigation.
The coalition that brought the litigation included the Sierra Club-Atlantic Chapter and Westchester's Citizens Awareness Network (Westcan), whose steadiness and support were crucial. The plaintiffs are appreciative of the intervention of then Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, whose early concern about this issue was noted by the Court.
Environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. said, "This 2nd Circuit decision in Brodsky v NRC is a turning point in our long-running struggle to end the collusion between the NRC and the nuclear industry. It will both protect and involve the public in key NRC health and safety decisions. Our primary concern has always been public health and safety, nowhere more important than with an Indian Point reactor with the worst health and safety record in the nation and located 28 miles from New York City."
Hamilton Fish, a board member of the leading environmental organization Riverkeeper said, "This is a real victory for public safety and transparency in the critical area of nuclear oversight from a court celebrated for its commitment to free speech and the first amendment."
Marilyn Elie, president of Plaintiff WestCan said, "This is a victory for transparency in government and due process. It makes it possible for people to have a voice in important nuclear decisions in their community and helps hold the NRC accountable for protecting public health and safety, something it hasn't done in years."
Annie Wilson, former chair of the energy committee of Plaintiff Sierra Club-Atlantic Chapter and energy co-chair of Sierra NYC said, "These dangerous 'exemptions' can no longer be handed out in secret. We're very pleased with the Court decision."
Here are excerpts from the decision:
The NRC must "supplement the administrative record to explain why allowing public input into the exemption request was inappropriate or impracticable."
The failed fire insulation at Indian Point was a "degradation of defense-in-depth fire protection and safe shut down in the event of a significant fire".
The NRC is bound by the requirement that "federal agencies examine and disclose the potential environmental impacts of projects before allowing them to proceed, which process "must involve the public."
"public scrutiny [i]s an "essential" part" of NRC actions, which "must ensure that environmental information is available to public officials and citizens before decisions are made and before actions are taken."
"The record before us fails to provide any agency explanation for why no public participation was deemed practicable or appropriate with respect to the challenged exemption case." and is "devoid of any evidence of public input on Entergy's exemption request, and with no explanation by the NRC of its decision not to afford public participation of any kind."
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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