NRC Blocks Public Access to LES Documents

* The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) this week filed a legal motion to restrict public access to documents regarding the licensing of the uranium enrichment facility proposed by Louisiana Energy Services (LES) for Lea County, New Mexico. NRC claims that the restriction is necessary to safeguard against terrorist access to sensitive information.

In October, NRC restricted access to its internet-based information center in order to review documents for sensitive information. As a result, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and Public Citizen, which are legally intervening in the LES licensing process, requested that the hearing to address the LES operating license be postponed.

Intervention is a process by which government bodies and members of the public raise concerns about proposals that may pose a risk to human health, safety or the environment. It is a legal procedure that is accompanied by a formal hearing. The hearing to discuss the LES license application is scheduled for February 2005.

Michael Mariotte, of NIRS, said, "This is a blatant violation of regulatory procedure and [NRC's] own established rules.... It is inexcusable that ... NRC has kept these documents unavailable ... while proceeding with deadlines in this case. Short of a complete and immediate restoration of public access to these documents, the only solution is a suspension of the proceeding."

In response, NRC filed a request for a protective order on documents related to the LES facility to its licensing board. The order would require NRC to release documents related to the facility with certain information, which is deemed sensitive by NRC, removed. The order also requires intervening parties, including the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and New Mexico Attorney General, to sign confidentiality agreements in order to access documents.

NMED and the Attorney General responded, arguing, "The proposed order is unnecessarily broad and inconsistent with the access generally afforded to the public under [NRC's] rules. Accordingly, the ... order should be modified so that it both protects legitimate security concerns and the public's interest in access to documents and information in this proceeding."

NIRS and Public Citizen argue that the order would stifle the public's ability to participate meaningfully in the licensing process, which presents numerous concerns to residents of the Lea County area, public interest groups, and the State of New Mexico.

Michele Boyd, of Public Citizen, said, "It is inexcusable that ... NRC is attempting to circumvent public scrutiny in this case, and it sets a poor precedent for future licensing actions. This unjust and inappropriate request ought to be rejected outright by [NRC]."

The Albuquerque Journal recently published an editorial supporting postponing the hearing until documents are available to the public. The Journal stated, ≥Without being able to review other filings on the enrichment plant ... opponents cannot prepare for a hearing.... Clearly, the hearing should be delayed until the NRC figures out how to frustrate terrorist goals without crippling public participation.≤

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