Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Secrecy Yes and Secrecy No

In recent days, Entergy and the NRC (separately) have attempted to control information. In the first case, I believe Entergy was justified in its actions. In the second case, I believe the NRC should rethink their plans.

(I'm a blogger. I have opinions. I share them.)

The Legal Probe Report: Secrecy Yes

In February, Entergy hired a law firm (Morgan Lewis and Bockius LLP) to conduct an internal probe of the misstatements and miscommunications about the buried piping. On February 24, Entergy issued a press release stating that the law firm had found Entergy employees did not intentionally mislead people. The press release also stated that the entire report of the probe had been turned over to the Vermont Attorney General. The same report was also provided to the Public Service Board.

This month, Entergy asked that the Public Service Board seal (not release to the public) any parts of the report that did NOT have to do with underground piping. Information related to underground piping would be released.

This seems reasonable to me. There are some generally accepted reasons why certain types of information and deliberations are kept private by public groups such as selectboards, school boards, public service commissions and so forth. I am not a lawyer, but I have noticed how public boards behave:
  • At the whiff that a lawsuit is pending, the board usually goes into closed session. If you have attended a town selectboard meeting (or school board or zoning board meeting), you know that closed sessions are sometimes held right after the public meeting. Visitors are asked to leave, lawyers show up, and the board holds a closed meeting. (In most cases, this occurs when the board itself is being sued, but can also happen when the board is party to a lawsuit in some other manner.)
  • When personnel matters are involved, the meeting is closed. The board can get itself sued big time for making personnel issues public. School principals are fired in closed session. Policemen are reprimanded in closed session. And so forth.
In the case of the Entergy internal legal report, both factors come into play. Entergy is being sued, and personnel matters are almost certainly involved in the report. Entergy asked that information about the underground piping be revealed to the public, and other information be sealed. That is the appropriate thing to do. Hopefully, the Public Service Board will be aware of how it must treat confidential information, and it will honor Entergy's request.

Aside: Of course, Entergy's request led to predictable outcries from the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which would love to see everything, since CLF is suing Entergy. Basically, CLF wants VY shut down so their natural gas plant can make more money. End Aside.

NRC Excludes Press: Secrecy No

The NRC recently issued an invitation to a meeting for legislators to ask questions about Vermont Yankee. The meeting is to take place in New Hampshire. Neither the public nor the press is invited. According to the NRC, they hold meetings of this type for stakeholders regularly, and such meetings allow legislators to ask questions and receive answers without fear of being quoted or misquoted in the press.

As far as I can tell, an informational meeting is probably not in violation of sunshine laws, though the line between legislators-gathering-information and legislators-deliberating seems way too fuzzy to me. These meetings could be in violation of sunshine laws. Anti-nuclear activists definitely think the sunshine laws are being violated.

I can understand why the NRC would choose to hold a closed meeting. The public meetings are not just contentious, they can be dangerous. In spring 2009, local activist Sally Shaw attended an open meeting with NRC and Entergy. She walked up to the table and spread manure on papers and into water glasses. Letters-to-the-editor applauded her actions. In a separate incident about Vermont Yankee, the PSB building was attacked with deer-urine. Most of the open meetings turn into complete circuses, with people shouting, pretending to have loud intercourse, singing and drowning out the speakers. You get the picture.

Despite all of this, the NRC will hold a seven-hour-long open meeting on the same topics on April 12. This meeting is described in the article about the closed meeting.

What is my conclusion about this? The closed meeting may or may not violate the sunshine laws. A separate open meeting will be held. The open meetings often turn into circuses. All sorts of reasons to hold a closed meeting, I guess.

My conclusion: I object to the NRC holding a closed meeting.

It's simple. If you want people to trust the NRC and trust the plant, you have to be open. You answer questions for everyone, with the press in attendance. That's almost the definition of "open."

This does not mean you have to put up with disruptions, deer urine, manure, people shouting and singing and drowning out the speakers. Such actions violate laws (from disorderly conduct through assault). Security measures at the meeting are the correct answer to these problems. Secret meetings are the wrong answer.

This Just In

The Rutland Herald reports that the NRC is canceling the closed meeting.

The illustration shows the building at Westminster which was the home of the infamous British Star Chamber court. Its deliberations were secret and its judgments could not be appealed.

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