Principles of Good Regulation: Independence

Brett Klukan
Regional Counsel
Region I

graphic-pogr_independenceMy aim in this post is to explore with you the meaning and implications of the first of the NRC’s Principles of Good Regulation: “independence.” At a glance, this might seem a simple task. “Independence” is one of those concepts like “justice” or “liberty” — we know what it is, we know what it looks and feels like; however, we have trouble, if asked, to precisely define it.

Of the multiple definitions offered by Merriam-Webster, two seem the most relevant: (1) “not subject to control by others” and (2) “not requiring or relying on something else.”

If that was all that was meant by “independence,” then its inclusion amongst the NRC’s other principles could be seen as a re-articulation–for emphasis maybe–of a prior-standing principle already applicable to all employees of the Executive Branch. Principle 8 of the General Principles of Ethical Behavior states, “Employees shall act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual.”

Undoubtedly, when the NRC authors included independence (also dubbed independent in some versions of the principles) as one of the NRC’s principles they intended something more than not being subject to the control of others. As stated by Dr. Gail H Marcus, who was Commissioner Kenneth Rogers’ technical assistant tasked with developing the NRC Principles, “We wanted to dispel the idea that an independent person should work in a vacuum. Rather, an independent person should interact with all factions, should collect all facts, and should understand all viewpoints in order to form an opinion that would stand up to critique and review.”

It is one thing to say what independence is. It is wholly another to say how one should go about being independent in particular circumstances. This presents an essential paradox. We must not separate ourselves, but rather to engage with all those who have a stake in the work of the agency.

principles-of-good-reg-web-screen_1To meet its charge of independence, the NRC must ever be proactively attuned to the views of licensees, state and local governments, and the interested public, all the while maintaining some necessary degree of separation to preserve our objectivity.

“Independence,” in the context of the NRC’s principles, thus does not mean simply “self-reliant isolation,” but rather something more akin to “impartial engagement.” And therein lies the rub. So long as the NRC is faced with a plurality of conflicting public views and interests–an ever-present fact of life at the NRC–impartial engagement is a complicated balancing act, a never-ending tightrope walk.

NRC employees negotiate with this paradox every day. Consider the following example:

Each year, in the late spring and early summer, the NRC conducts public annual assessment meetings for each of the reactor licensees. Some of these meetings are heavily attended–so much so that often there are far more members of the public who wish to speak than the allotted meeting time would permit. As a facilitator for those meetings, I must devise the public speaking order, knowing that this decision will determine who will get to speak at the meeting and who will likely not. As illustrated by the dialogue that follows, I have struggled with how to achieve an impartial balance that fully and fairly provides an opportunity for the conflicting views at those meetings to be voiced.

One option is to choose the speaking order by lottery. Picking names out of a box would be an impartial solution. But is that fair to those who arrived early to secure themselves a place in the speaking order?

Another option is to have one sign-up list at the registration table, and we’ll call people in chronological order. First come, first served. But couldn’t that lead to some people queuing up hours in advance? Will the meeting space allow that? And what if those arriving early are members of one group? Don’t we have a responsibility to make sure that we hear from a variety of viewpoints?

Perhaps we should have two sign-up lists: one for those for and one for those against? How about adding a “neutral” sign-up list? That may solve some issues, but could present more. What happens if everyone just signs up on the neutral list, which would usually be the shortest?

Or what will we say to someone who didn’t get to speak because he or she signed up on the ‘pro’ or ‘con’ list, while someone who arrived later did get to speak because that person signed up on the neutral list?

We weigh these options, and sometimes others. Any time we seek input into our decisions, we face this struggle to maintain impartial and balanced engagement with a plurality of stakeholders with conflicting views. It’s a balance we have to strike, and inevitably, we won’t please everyone. However, it is a task that NRC employees must fully embrace if the agency is to live true to the vision of independence ensconced in its principles.

This post is the first of five that will explore each of the five principles separately. For the history of the Principles of Good Regulation, read this post.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

7 thoughts on “Principles of Good Regulation: Independence”

  1. As it should be Mr. Klukan, glad to hear it. Leaders bound by the same standards as those they lead. The Executive Branch has it right. Now all we need to work on are those “leaders” in the Legislative Branch, especially those in Congress.

  2. First off, thank you for your comment. In response to your specific question: NRC commissioners are, in fact, bound to comply, just as other NRC employees, with the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch. They include, among other requirements, the General Principles of Ethical Behavior mentioned in my post. I’ve verified this answer with other designated agency ethics officials at the NRC. Again, thank you for reading my post and providing feedback; I very much appreciate it.

    Brett Klukan

  3. Excellent discussion Mr. Klukan.

    I learned of yet another set of principles that govern “all executive branch employees”. In particular that, “Employees shall act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual.”

    Are NRC Commissioners considered to be “executive branch employees”?

    If not, are they in fact bound by an identical principle by some other fiat?

    I have never had a problem with NRC employees working hard to be fair & impartial. But I feel that a few NRC Commissioners, past & present, have not been impartial in their deliberations & actions regarding the discharge of their duties. That in fact they have caved to pressure from the nuclear industry &/or pressures from congressional reps (including those in charge of NRC purse strings), influenced by the lobbying efforts of the nuclear industry , to help ensure the continued viability of the very industry they are charged with regulating.

    I would be interested to see if you can even respond to my concern, with even your own opinion on this subject, without fear of retaliation or retribution of any kind.

  4. First, gratitude for seeing you here! #gratitude to Sec. Perry et al., next “yeah” for independence, which probably creates some very interesting common ground to hold, in the regulatory position for the people and The People, and the Stakeholders and stakeholders of the corporations code interests too. Complex to establish that independent voice that honors equality like the #DavosPlanB did. Thank you for helping us understand the job and challenges of the NRC.

  5. Ultimately NRC should base its decisions on a strong technical bases weighed against the nations need for safe and secure nuclear power. The technical basis is impartial. The NRC is fortunate to have highly qualified staff that are more than capable of making decisions based on their technical merits. Walking the tight-rope described in the post simply results in inaction and blame shifting. Focus on the science and lets move forward.

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