NRC Out of Compliance with FOIA Regulations

October 21, 2014 | 6:00 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

Fission Stories #174

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) manages the inherent dangers from nuclear power plant operation by establishing and enforcing (at least sometimes) federal safety regulations.

But this post is not about the NRC sending someone to nuclear jail. It’s about the NRC violating federal regulations and perhaps being on its own way to nuclear jail.

This follows on the heals of our post last week showing the NRC has been hiding documents from the public for a decade.

The NRC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently released a report on its audit of the NRC staff’s process for handling requests under the Freedom of Information Act. As noted in the OIG report:

 The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a Federal law that provides any person the right to submit a written request for access to records or information maintained by the Federal Government. In response to such written requests, Federal agencies must disclose the requested records, unless they are protected from release under one of the nine FOIA statutory exemptions. FOIA mandates that all agencies shall readily promulgate information, agency riles, opinions, orders, records and proceedings to the public.

 Among other things, the FOIA statutes require federal agencies to respond to simple FOIA requests (e.g., a single document) within 20 days and to respond to complex FOIA requests (e.g., many documents and/or documents requiring interagency coordination) within 30 days.

 NRC Is Not in Compliance with FOIA Regulations

OIG’s audit concluded that “NRC is not in compliance with FOIA regulations…” in two different ways.

First, OIG found that “NRC is not in compliance with FOIA regulations as initial disclosure reviews of FOIA records are done at inconsistent management levels.”

Second, OIG found that “NRC is also not meeting is statutory 30-day timeliness requirement for processing complex FOIA requests.”

OIG found that NRC was meeting the federally mandated deadline for simple requests but missing it by quite a bit for complex requests (Fig. 1). The NRC takes an average of 82 days to process complex requests, nearly three times longer than allowed by federal statutes. Overall, the NRC takes an average of 37 days to respond to FOIA requests, a week longer than the longest allowable response time.

(Source: NRC Office of the Inspector General)

Fig. 1 (Source: NRC Office of the Inspector General)

OIG found that 74% of the FOIAs handled by the NRC are considered complex (Fig. 2). In contrast, OIG noted that the website indicates that only 33% of FOIAs are considered complex by other Federal agencies.

Fig. 2 (Source: NRC Office of the Inspector General)

Fig. 2 (Source: NRC Office of the Inspector General)

NRC’s FOIA Processing is Much More Expensive

OIG also found that “NRC spent approximately $7,225 per FOIA request processed in FY 2013. The average cost per request processed for the other 98 Federal agencies was about $615.”

OIG identified several reasons why NRC incurs higher costs for processing FOIA requests than other federal agencies while providing slower response times than permitted by federal regulations:

“The FOIA office has recently experienced a high amount of turnover, losing some seasoned personnel with many years of experience.”

“…there are current no FOIA training requirements for FOIA specialists, FOIA coordinators, or agency staff in general.”

“Many of the FOIA specialists and FOIA coordinators claimed that their training was essentially “on-the-job.””

“NRC does not use technology to the fullest extent possible in processing its FOIA requests.”

“The entire redaction process is tedious and paper intensive.”

Our Takeaway

Workers new to the job provided with little to no training and using antiquated, labor-intensive methods are a recipe for high cost, low quality outcomes.

The NRC’s spending more than 10 times the federal average cost for processing FOIA requests might have earned it a Golden Fleece Award from the late Senator William Proxmire. Between 1975 and his retirement from the Senate in 1988, Senator Proxmire issued 168 awards to public officials who wasted public money. The Department of Defense earned such an award for its study of whether military personnel should carry umbrellas in the rain.

Whether or not NRC’s irresponsible financial expenditures are ended, someone needs to hold NRC accountable for violating federal statutes. Those responsible (using the term loosely in this case) at the NRC for the agency’s non-compliances with FOIA statues should be boarded onto a bus and taken off to nuclear jail.

After a trial before their peers, of course. The peers would be the managers at the other Federal agencies who provide the procedures, training, and oversight necessary to comply with FOIA laws.

And lest NRC attempt to use Fukushima as an excuse for its belated responses, I and other FOIA submitters encountered tardiness before that accident. It took over a year for NRC to respond to one FOIA request.


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.