How to Survive an NRC Public Meeting

By Suzy Hobbs Baker

Several weeks ago in the quiet community of Gaffney, South Carolina, I attended a public meeting held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to discuss the potential environmental impact of Duke Energy’s proposed William States Lee III site. About 100 anti-nuclear activists also descended on the meeting.

The funny thing about this meeting is that of the dozens of people who spoke out against the proposed nuclear plant, not a single one of them was from Cherokee County, which is the location of the Lee III site. In fact, the vast majority of them were not even native to South Carolina. This was a group of volunteers organized by professional anti-nuclear activists who were bused down from Asheville, North Carolina. Many who spoke had well-rehearsed speeches about sick children, multi-billion dollar proposals that benefitted their own solar companies, and even one very long “Occupy” chant that had little to do with anything as far as I could tell.

This is not the first time that activists based in western North Carolina have organized against nuclear projects in other communities, in other states. In fact, it has become protocol. In the past two years, activists from the Asheville area have hiked to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to protest, bused to the Savannah River Site, S.C., to speak to the Blue Ribbon Commission, flown to Florida to fight the Crystal River nuclear power plant, and donned zombie costumes in Knoxville, Tenn. I’m sure that some American Nuclear Society members have had experiences with these same activists in the past.

So, why do I care about these anti-nuclear activities, and why should you?

I’ll start by explaining why this particular meeting was important to me. The Lee nuclear project will be built 15 miles from where my husband and I just bought our first home. We are located in the rural region between Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C., near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. This beautiful area has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, as well as one of the highest poverty rates in the state (20.6 percent in Cherokee County, more than double the national average).

A 2006 survey published in the International Journal of Nuclear Governance suggests that building a new nuclear plant is one of the best ways for a community to grow. Like the majority of local citizens, I would love to see new jobs, flourishing cultural activities, and increasing home values. Sadly, this vision for future prosperity was overshadowed by the chanting, hollering masses of activists during this particular meeting (the presence of four armed guards suggests that things have gotten quite heated during past meetings at this location).

Unfortunately, my experience was not the exception but the rule when it comes to these meetings. Anti-nuclear activists have found effective ways to disrupt the NRC’s public comment periods, and to create a false sense of community opposition to nuclear projects. This often translates into real delays in licensing and construction, increased cost, and sometimes litigation, which are serious reasons why nuclear professionals should care about how we respond as citizens and as an industry.

It would be fabulous if the NRC would implement a few common sense guidelines to make public meetings more community focused, and less of a circus. Simple steps like reserving comments at public meetings for community members, and asking out-of-state citizens to submit their comments by mail or email would add value to this process.

Of course, I don’t see this happening any time soon, so I wanted to share some tips on how to survive an NRC public meeting. Many nuclear professionals understandably avoid these meetings, but the reality is that with new nuclear builds in the works, we should all become actively engaged in this process:

  1. Take a tip from the opposition and think of public meetings as a social event. Call your like-minded friends and family; go out for a nice meal together before or after the meeting.
  2. Use your local network. Send an email out to your ANS chapter, as well as other non-profits you may be a member of (NA-YGN, WiN, etc.). The more the merrier!
  3. Call the NRC in advance and request a table. And bring cookies. Seriously, sweets go a long way in win hearts and minds. So does smiling, it’s very effective.
  4. No suits! If you are attending a public meeting as a citizen, then dress like a citizen. Grab your favorite pro-nuke t-shirt, or something colorful and casual.
  5. This is more of a lesson learned, and is a little harder to pull-off, but it can be achieved by arriving a few minutes early and asking nicely of the NRC. For example, if you have a group of a dozen people, and you all sign up to make a comment, request to be spread out through the meeting. Then, as accusations and false information arise, you can take notes and directly counter particularly inflammatory statements.

In case you are ready to go kill ‘em with kindness and cookies at the next NRC meeting, here is the schedule.

And finally—as proof that with a little planning, an NRC meeting can actually be fun—here are some pictures of our crew of nuclear supporters in Gaffney last month.

Our outreach table with free t-shirts and cookies!

From left: Suzy Hobbs Baker (PopAtomic), Jennifer Saucier (NA-YGN), Rod Adams (Atomic Insights), Kasey Baker (PopAtomic), Brian Dyke (ANS Savannah River Section)

NA-YGN Carolina Chapter

 

6 Responses to How to Survive an NRC Public Meeting

  1. @Suzy – Though I agree that local involvement is important, I believe that energy choices are too important to leave to local decision making. The impact of a two unit, 2200+ MWe nuclear plant is not just in the local area; it will sell electricity to a wide area, reduce pollution for millions, and change the supply-demand balance for natural gas and coal over an entire region.

    That is why I took the time to drive to the meeting from my home in south central VA – nearly 8 hours from Gaffney.

    It was a pleasure to share a meal with you and your friends while there, but like those antinuclear activists that know they have a right to gather and speak, I believe I have a right to attend and speak out at as many meetings as I can reach – even if I am not a local resident.

    I’m looking forward to the next opportunity – perhaps on Feb 21 when the NRC briefs its SORCA study to the people who live near Surry. At least that one is in my home state!

  2. Great Article Suzy!! Although, I would be devastated if I couldn’t wear my suit. I’m like “Barney” from “How I Met Your Mother” on TV…. suits, suits suits! haha.

    Again, your article was very informative and very helpful. Thanks for all you do for the Nuclear Community.

  3. Suzy. This is a GREAT post. You even have how to dress for a meeting! That is important. Many of us are used to business meetings, so we tend to dress formally for public meetings. That gives the impression that the “suits” are pro-nuclear, but ordinary people are against it.

    Winning the world, one cookie at a time! That is so great! I should have asked for a table at our NRC meeting. The opponents sure did. I keep learning.

    About the speaker order. At the NRC meetings I have attended, the NRC was confused and overwhelmed in setting up the order of speakers. Around here, I cannot imagine a situation where the NRC would agree to a request to spread out speakers throughout a meeting. Here’s a blog post I had on our latest NRC meeting in Vermont, with notes about speaker order and the anger about it. The NRC managed to make everybody angry.

    http://yesvy.blogspot.com/2011/06/vermont-yankee-three-things-i-learned.html

  4. Howard Shaffer

    Great work.

    After the annual NRC review meeting last June, I had enough. I sent the meeting reply form to the Region I office complaining that I lost my right to speak because people were shouting out and wasting meeting time. I sent a copy with a cover letter to Senator Shaheen, one of my senators. She chairs the subcommittee that oversees the NRC, and I worked on her campaign. One of her staff contacted me, so this is in the mill.
    I suggest that as many people as possible do the same. Send in the meeting evaluation form. Send copies to your Senators and Representatives, and to Senator Shaheen.

  5. Rod,

    With the way things are currently set up, I agree that we need supporters from far and wide to come speak out in support of new builds- and you are absolutely correct that the positive impact will span far beyond my little community.

    However, I think the NRC could do a better job at managing these things. In an attempt to be “fair” to everyone, they end up catering to anti-nuclear activists and fail to enforce their own rules (meeting length, allocation of time to each speaker, comments that are relavant to the subject of the meeting).

    At this point many NRC public meetings are little more than the same activists and professional anti-nukes saying the same things regardless of the project or location. I wish anti-nuclear groups would respect the choices of other communities and allow public meetings to be a safe forum for local citizens to ask questions of the experts and get clear answers. It is an intimidating and dysfunctional environment for many local citizens, who may just have a few questions. Perhaps, not allowing out of state citizens to comment isn’t the exact solution, but I still feel more could be done to manage these meetings, while being respectful of everyone involved.

    Rod, you are an excellent example of how to be a positive voice among the chaos- although, I wasn’t even brave enough to get up and speak (and public speaking is a considerable part of my job and I am an actual local citizen), because the environment at this meeting was so hostile. That is saying something.

    Howard, I think you’ve got the right idea. These thing are not functional. We need to approach this from all angles- figuring out how to be heard above the noise now, while encouraging the NRC to improve the way they approach this process.

    Meredith- thanks for the support! I know you’ve been through this a million times, and done a great deal to have a positive presence!

    And Jason- the suit is okay, but only if you take off the tie and un-button the top button before you get to the meeting ;)

  6. @Suzy

    You and Howard make an excellent point – there are rules to the public participation segment that need to be enforced with a firm, but understanding hand.

    I hope no one takes offense at this, but I need to share my particular frustration with the way the Gaffney meeting started with a little old lady who must have been close to 90 years old carrying her cane to the podium and then being allowed to ramble for at least 20 minutes.

    I got tired of listening to her disorganized drivel, went to the men’s room, had a brief hallway chat, and came back into the room to listen to at least 5 more minutes before the facilitator finally told her that we just had to move on to other comments. As I recall, there were more than 30 people who had signed up to say something – that one person took up about 20% of the available time.

    There is no doubt in my military mind that her talk and her position as the first speaker was a crafted set up tactic designed to dominate the available time to prevent people who might have some positive things to say.