NRC library goes off-line

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

It could take several weeks before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) restores public access to its online library, which was shut down this week after officials learned that potentially sensitive documents were found on the site.

In addition to taking the Agencywide Documents Access and Management System (ADAMS) offline, NRC officials suspended access Oct. 25 to the Electronic Hearing Docket and staff documents referring to the high-level waste repository, pending further review.

"We envision that just because of the sheer volume and number of documents involved that it will be a few weeks — we're hoping three — before ADAMS can be partially restored," said NRC spokesman David McIntyre. "And at that point a review of documents will continue and more will be added as they are determined not to contain sensitive information."

ADAMS is the NRC's massive searchable online library that provides access to the full text of regulatory and technical documents, including regulatory guides, reports, correspondence, inspection reports and other documents written by agency officials, its contractors or licensees.

Media outlets recently drew attention to the issue with reports that several sensitive papers were available online, McIntyre said. He didn't elaborate, but a CNN story reported that those documents contain floor plans for nuclear laboratories at several universities and identify the locations and types of nuclear materials used.

NRC policy for releasing documents to the public now requires the removal of any information that terrorists might be able to use.

"We've always been sensitive to the possibility that some of the documents that we make publicly available could contain information that shouldn't be public and whenever this has come to our attention we've taken them down," McIntyre said. "So this is obviously a more thorough review focused specifically on the subject with the new standard that anything that could be conceivably be useful to a terrorist should be withheld."

Officials daily add about 200 records to ADAMS, which contains hundreds of thousands of records. One collection provides the full text of documents released since Nov. 1, 1999, while another library collection provides bibliographic information before that date.

People who want to access that material must call the agency's public document room until ADAMS is restored.

It's not the first time agency officials scrubbed their site. They took down the Web site and removed more than 1,000 documents for about a week or so immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"But ever since then the agency has grappled with a contradiction as it were between our statutory requirement and our desire to be an open and public regulatory agency on the one hand and the need to protect sensitive information that could conceivably be useful to terrorists on the other hand," McIntyre said.

The agency has also been meeting with nuclear industry officials to redefine the criteria for withholding sensitive information, an action that predates this particular episode, he said. Agency officials or licensees, for example, can designate portions of these documents as sensitive or proprietary.

"The agency is committed to being an open and public regulatory agency to the greatest extent possible and the public will have access to the information it needs regarding our regulatory process," McIntyre said. "Even when this review is finished certain documents may no longer be available, but the public will have access to the information it needs."

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