Several weeks ago in this space we noted the role of sound science in public policy. We challenged the notion that public discourse “for its own sake” contributes to sound policy-making in areas such as nuclear regulation, without context or understanding to assure that the “discourse” is meaningfully grounded in science. A somewhat related issue is how public confidence or “public trust” in the regulatory agency should factor into regulatory decision-making.

The NRC’s statutory mission is to utilize its expertise to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety and common defense and security. The meaning of “adequate protection” could be the subject of a lengthy discourse (and in fact has been in this recent and comprehensive article by NRC Commissioner Ostendorff and his Legal Counsel). But is public confidence in the agency a meaningful way of gauging how well the agency is fulfilling its mission? Apparently, NRC Chairman Dr. Allison MacFarlane thinks so. At a Commission meeting on new reactor construction, she said, “if [the public doesn’t] trust you, you’re not protecting the public health and safety.” 

Now, the Chairman made this statement in the context of a discussion regarding effective communication with the public. Her broad point was that the agency must clearly communicate to ensure that the public understands the agency’s actions. Point taken. Communication is an important aspect of the agency’s functions, as is inspiring public trust. The NRC should strive to make its stakeholders aware of and understand (to the extent possible) the agency’s decisions. And a strong, independent, and effective regulator should (all else being equal) inspire public trust. But this is not an easy task and trust is not an inevitable outcome – particularly given that we are dealing with a highly technical subject matter and a complicated regulatory framework. If the Waste Confidence rulemaking is indicative of the value that the NRC places on effectively communicating with the public, then the agency is getting it right. Yes, there may be room for improvement, and as Senator Carper says at NRC oversight hearings, “if it’s not perfect, make it better.” But the NRC can’t be accused of not exerting substantial effort and resources toward this goal.

But let’s consider the Chairman’s statement more closely. Literally, it is not about communication at all. It seems to equate safety and public trust; to suggest that the NRC must somehow regulate to the public trust. That raises the question of whether the NRC’s safety standards should be set based on a level of perceived public tolerance. This idea has no basis in the Atomic Energy Act. Public “trust” is not a factor (and certainly not a determinative factor) in providing “reasonable assurance” of public safety (or “no undue risk”). Sound science must prevail at the intersection of technology and policy, because it determines whether public health and safety is adequately protected. An agency lacking public trust certainly must work to overcome that deficiency, but this does not mean that the agency is failing in its mission or that it must increase standards by redefining “reasonable assurance” to achieve universal public approval (assuming that was even achievable). NRC must consider real data presented to it by all stakeholders, but ultimately must make its decisions based on the data and its expertise.

In the final analysis, whether the NRC is protecting public health and safety should be measured by the scientific data supporting its regulatory decisions, and not by how good certain elements of the public feel about those decisions.