A toothless watchdog


Since the elections last November, I (like a lot of people, I suspect) started to ruminate about the nature of our government – both state and federal – and corporatism.  Governor Susana Martinez’s election in New Mexico and the tsunami of other corporate-sponsored candidates elected to Congress made me fear that corporate interests would gain an even greater stranglehold on our democracy.  Subsequent events have convinced me my fear was well-founded.  From Governor Martinez’s “small business-friendly task force” made up of big-business lobbyists determined to eviscerate New Mexico’s environmental regulations, to Scott Walker’s attack on unions in Wisconsin, to Representative Paul Ryan’s scheme to privatize Medicare, Corporate America has wasted no time in gutting the remnants of every progressive policy that working families and communities have struggled so hard to put in place.  The consolidation of government and corporate power seems complete. 

Recently, however, it occurred to me that corporatism’s apparent triumph wasn’t the direct result of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United case, as many progressive commentators have supposed.  The model for the current corporate takeover of government has been refined over the last 60 years in the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  The NRC and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, have been the petri dish where corporatist strategies, policies, and tactics have found a fertile medium in which to grow and thrive.   

The hallmark of a corporatist state is that the State and private enterprise act as one.  The NRC is very much a partner with, rather than a regulator of, the nuclear industry.   This symbiotic relationship goes back to the genesis of the atomic age in the U.S.  The NRC’s predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), was created specifically to both promote and regulate civilian uses of nuclear materials.  In his excellent book, The Cult of the Atom, former Union of Concerned Scientists director Daniel Ford chronicles – based on AEC documents - how the AEC’s cheerleading mission eclipsed its regulatory functions.  By the time the AEC was dissolved and its functions were divided between the Department of Energy (responsible for promoting nuclear power) and the NRC (responsible for regulating nuclear materials), the transformation was complete.  The AEC’s culture of capitulating to the nuclear industry’s wishes was so absolute and entrenched it survived the AEC’s dissolution like a glowing zombie.  Now, the NRC has taken over the AEC’s role as industry’s government arm.  As recently as 2007, the former NRC chairman, Dale Klein, stated that the NRC “would not be a bottleneck to industry.”  The result of this union of government and corporate interests is effectively a self-regulating industry. 

Another of the defining characteristics of corporatist institutions is authoritarianism and its flip side, anti-democratic principles.  The NRC is an anathema to democracy and democratic principles, and rabidly authoritarian.  While superficially touting its “open” processes and “robust” public participation mechanisms, the NRC’s regulatory process in reality is the most byzantine and Kafkaesque imaginable. In order for a member of the public to even marginally participate in a regulatory proceeding you must file reams of paper within a very short time period just to demonstrate you are eligible to enter the maze in the first place.  If you’re deemed worthy to proceed, you’ll be required to produce testimony by experts (who don’t work for free) from some of the most arcane technical disciplines.  If you haven’t been driven to destitution by this point, you will look forward to an administrative appeals process that invariably results in defeat for the public’s interest. 

Even as you go through the process, you will be faced with an NRC staff that is openly resentful of your presence and disdainful of your point of view.  In the NRC process, no member of the public, no matter how credentialed or experienced they may be, can ever be deemed as authoritative as the NRC’s staff and industry executives.  The NRC culture seems to be that all nuclear issues must be left to the experts (them) and everything would be fine if only we just trusted them.  

Sadly, trust doesn’t come easy to a public faced with the NRC’s environmental and public safety record.  The NRC has never once denied a nuclear materials license to an applicant.   Despite Three Mile Island, pipes leaking radiation at Vermont Yankee, a near meltdown at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, and widespread license violations and groundwater contamination at in situ leach uranium mining operations, the NRC has never encountered a nuclear project it didn’t consider “safe.”  

The triumph of corporatism at the NRC, unfortunately, leads to real world tragedies.  The AEC’s and NRC’s failures to even minimally regulate uranium mills have led to countless deaths and disease in primarily low-income and minority communities.  Each time the NRC looks the other way when a nuclear power plant has a safety failure, communities nearby are one step closer to catastrophic consequences.  And the NRC’s wholesale abdication of its role as an environmental watchdog has led to billions of gallons of radioactive ground and surface water, thousands of acres of contaminated soil, and untold levels of air pollution at every step of the nuclear fuel chain. 

As a society, we need to bring institutions like the NRC out of the shadows, and hold them accountable for the damage they’ve done.  Then can we begin to reclaim our democracy. 

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Eric Jantz is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.


High Country News Classifieds