National security concerns at issue
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Nov 07, 2004
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Members of several watchdog groups have criticized Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials for removing an online public reading room from the agency's Web site after NRC officials were told that the collection included sensitive documents.
It could be several weeks before the Agency Document Access and Management System (ADAMS) is partially restored online. Agency officials are conducting a comprehensive review, said David McIntyre, a NRC spokesman.
"At that point, a review of documents will continue and more will be added as they are determined not to contain sensitive information," McIntyre said.
NRC's new standard is to remove any information that could be used by terrorists.
ADAMS is a searchable library that gives users access to the full text of all the commission's regulatory and technical documents, including guides, reports, correspondence and inspection reports. NRC officials add about 200 records to the database daily. It contains about 700,000 records.
One collection has the full text of documents released since Nov. 1, 1999. Another offers bibliographic information on documents released
The NRC took ADAMS off-line Oct. 25 after a citizen activist and officials from several media groups alerted agency officials that some online documents contained floor plans for nuclear laboratories at several universities. The documents identified the locations and types of nuclear materials used.
David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said he had hoped the review would be conducted while the library remained online. "We agree sensitive information should not be up there," he said. "What we don't agree with is the method employed by the NRC to get to that point."
With the library off-line, his worry is that users lack access to information they need to participate in activities of public interest, such as plant licensing.
The citizen activist who contacted NRC officials about the documents is Scott Portzline. He is also a nuclear security researcher and consultant for the nonprofit Three Mile Island Alert. Portzline said the group had alerted the agency numerous times about sensitive materials on the agency's Web site.
Commission officials hadn't responded to those alerts, Portzline said. When they finally reacted, he said, "they had to do a knee-jerk reaction and pull the plug."
McIntyre said the agency's position has been consistent. "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," he said.
The current review is more thorough, McIntyre said, using the standard that "anything that could conceivably be useful to a terrorist should be withheld."
UCS members had alerted agency officials several times to sensitive public documents available online before Sept. 11, 2001. NRC officials usually agreed with their assessments and removed the documents, Lochbaum said.
Taking ADAMS off-line, however, has nothing to do with a national security threat, he said, but rather is a response to agency officials' embarrassment.
Portzline said he doesn't think that several weeks is sufficient time for NRC officials to review and restore ADAMS. "I expect that there will be [only] very limited amounts of information available for months ...maybe even a year."
This latest incident is not the first time NRC officials have scrubbed the document library. Immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks, NRC officials took the library off-line for about a week and removed more than 1,000 documents.
Agency officials also have been meeting with nuclear industry officials to redefine the criteria for withholding sensitive information, an action that predates the latest scrubbing, McIntyre said.
Agency officials or licensees, for example, can designate portions of NRC 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," he said, adding that citizens would continue to have access to information
Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association's Washington, D.C., office, said NRC officials' actions are similar to those taken by other federal officials.
NRC is among a growing number of agencies that have pulled information from public Web sites in the past three years, she said.
Sheketoff said she understands that agency officials have to be careful with such information. But she said NRC and other federal officials could index information about sensitive documents and describe alternative ways for users to access them.
"There has to be an accommodation for those who want to make sure that really important information is available to those who need it," Sheketoff said. "You just have to be a little creative."
Until ADAMS is restored online, users who want to view NRC materials must call the agency's public document room.
By Nov. 4, however, agency officials had restored online access to documents related to an upcoming action on a waste repository.