FOIA Update: FOIA in a Time of Crisis--NRC and Three Mile Island
Vol. I, No. 2
FOIA in a Time of Crisis--NRC and Three Mile Island
The accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant (TMI) on March 28, 1979, provided the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission with a test of FOIA in a crisis situation which offered an unprecedented challenge to the agency's ability to fulfill its obligations to FOIA requesters at a time when the energies of the entire staff were focused on protecting the public health and safety and averting a possible disaster.
NRC was able to cope with its FOIA responsibilities in the midst of a major emergency, largely due to the strong support of the NRC Commissioners for a policy of openness. Other important factors were the strong centralized structure of the FOIA organization in NRC, and the staff's ability to enlist the cooperation of requesters in permitting NRC to stretch response deadlines in exchange for a promise that documents would be processed and made available on a continuing basis as soon as practicable.
Several policy decisions were made very quickly after the magnitude of the TMI accident became apparent:
(1) All requests for agency records concerning the accident would be interpreted broadly to include pre-accident records;
(2) No search fees would be charged;
(3) Copies of all released documents would be made publicly available as soon as possible in NRC's Public Document Rooms in both Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania;
(4) A computerized index, with frequent updates, would be available for easy access to all released documents.
The NRC's Executive Director for operations also sent a notice to remind all NRC employees to preserve all records concerning TMI. This was followed by a second notice requesting all employees involved in the accident to record, for any subsequent investigation, their recollections of the first two days after the accident.
NRC received its first FOIA request concerning TMI on April 4, seven days after the accident. By that time, plans for handling FOIA responses were well underway. FOIA coordinators in every NRC Office were notified to forward copies of all TMI documents to the FOIA Branch in the Division of Rules and Records, which is responsible for answering all FOIA requests. This Branch sent some of its own staff to the trailer offices hastily installed on Three Mile Island. There they worked side by side with the technical staff, making copies of documents almost before the ink was dry on the originals, and began the review for information which would fall under the privacy and proprietary exemptions of FOIA.
In all, 40 FOIA requests were received for TMI documents. Requesters were informed of NRC's plans for responding to the requests, and were told that because many of the persons who would have to locate and review documents subject to the request wert the very ones engaged in bringing the facility to a "cold shutdown" and protecting public health and safety the full response would have to be delayed. Telephone contact was maintained between requesters and FOIA staff throughout the process and the fact that no one chose to appeal the extended response period suggests that all understood the severity of the TMI situation and NRC efforts to keep the public informed.
One of the key factors which helped in processing the voluminous quantity of records involved in the FOIA requests was NRC's computerized document control system which is operated by a contractor. As soon as documents were reviewed, they were forwarded on a daily basis to the contractor who assigned each one a unique number, indexed it, and entered it into the computerized system. Daily printouts were prepared which were eventually compiled into bound volumes listing some 7,000 documents which ranged in length from one page to several hundred.
As soon as the documents were indexed, they were forwarded to NRC's Public Document Room (PDR), located at 1717 H St., N.W., in downtown Washington, D.C., and the PDR in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania not far from the TMI site.
FOIA staff sent periodic responses to the requesters--one requester received eight responses--notifying them as new categories of records were released. Requesters were sent copies of the title lists as they were printed so they could send mail orders for the documents they wanted.
Three Mile Island was an acid test of the Government's FOIA policy. It proved that, given a strong FOIA commitment, a well-organized plan of procedure, a spirit of cooperation within the agency, and a willingness by responders to waive rigid deadlines--combined with the availability of a sophisticated technology-- the Freedom of Information Act can operate effectively in a time of crisis.
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Updated December 9, 2022