Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Christopher Hanson, second from right, at the 2023 LAMPAC conference. He is joined, from left, by International Secretary Treasurer Paul Noble, then-Edison Electric Institute President Thomas Kuhn, International President Kenneth W. Cooper, American Electric Power President and CEO Julie Sloat, and former EEI Chairman Warren Baxter.

The IBEW is urging the renomination and Senate confirmation of Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Christopher Hanson following the departure of another commissioner who was a friend of working families and communities that depend on the industry.

NRC Chairman Christopher Hanson speaking at last year's LAMPAC Conference. LAMPAC is a joint venture between the IBEW and EEI to advance joint objectives between the union and energy companies.
NRC Chairman Christopher Hanson testifies before the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee in December 2021. Flickr/Creative Commons photo by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Jeff Baran, an advocate for safety and the protection of employees' rights, left the commission after his tenure ended in June 2023. This left the five-seat commission with four members including Hanson, whose term is up in June.

Baran worked closely with all the nuclear industry's stakeholders during his nine years on the commission, including organized labor. He regularly met with IBEW members during visits to nuclear facilities and other events. The commission is charged by law to regulate the use of radioactive materials to protect public health and safety and the environment.

"I want to thank Jeff Baran for his work in keeping the nuclear industry safe and for supporting our members, especially in fighting back against attempts to change access authorization," Utility Director Donnie Colston said. "He was respectful to all the industry's stakeholders, including the IBEW. He leaves quite a legacy."

The IBEW has ample reason to be interested in the commission's makeup. It has more than 10,000 members employed at 65 nuclear reactors in the United States and one in Canada. About 5,000 more construction members work in jobs supported by the nuclear industry. Colston and International President Kenneth W. Cooper meet with Hanson on a quarterly basis, and IBEW representatives regularly speak with all the commission's members and their staffs.

"Chairman Hanson is doing a good job in keeping nuclear facilities safe," Colston said. "He's worked to see that the NRC has a professional staff, which ensures that inspections are performed by highly qualified inspectors. That makes it safer for our members at work and helps save jobs because facilities are more likely to stay open. We are optimistic that will continue for years to come."

Protecting Nuclear Workers' Rights

Access authorization is a key concern of the unionized nuclear workforce. New employees undergo an extensive background and security check by plant operators when hired and every five years afterward. Once certified, they can enter a nuclear facility unsupervised. That access can only be revoked under special circumstances.

Some companies and nuclear operators pushed to do away with an employee's right to appeal those decisions and deny access after decisions to a third-party arbitrator, even though the just-cause clause is a key part of collective bargaining agreements between management and the IBEW and other unions. In essence, those employees would have nowhere to turn if they were being kept from working.

The federal courts ruled against the companies, and the NRC did as well by a vote of 3-1 in 2019, protecting the collective bargaining rights of union employees. Baran wrote the NRC's decision for the Federal Register. He was the only Democratic member of the commission at the time due to a vacancy that had not been filled.

"Companies are often touting their relationship with labor," said Utility International Representative Matthew Warren, who specializes in nuclear issues. "But all too often, they are attacking federal agencies that support labor.

"Without that ability to go to arbitration, there would be no checks and balances on what the industry could do," Warren added. "They could get rid of people they just don't like, including for being active in their union."

Nuclear is a key element in the ongoing transition to green energy because it is carbon-free, safe and can be accessed at any time. It continues to evolve to the benefit of IBEW members. TerraPower and PacifiCorp have applied to the NRC for a permit to construct a Natrium reactor plant on the site of a former coal-fired power plant in Wyoming, the No. 1 coal producing state in the nation.

Colston said the project will provide work to about 2,000 construction members. Once finished, the facility will employ about 320 members. Natrium reactors are smaller and run on different fuel than advanced reactors. Many industry experts believe they will be an effective supplement to carbon-free sources like wind and solar, which haven't yet proven to be as reliable.

"It doubles our members at that plant from when it was a coal facility," Colston said. "These small, modular facilities can be ramped up and ramped down, just like a peaking unit. They're going to create a lot of jobs for IBEW members using clean energy."

Keeping Plants Open

Warren said Hanson has taken a leading role in developing common-sense regulations to help save nuclear plants at risk of closure. That is vitally important because it can take years, perhaps even decades, to close a facility after it has been decommissioned.

The commission has kept open facilities in California, Illinois and Florida where the IBEW represents workers. Warren said Hanson was particularly helpful in keeping open the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, which includes hundreds of employees represented by Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245.

PG&E, the plant's owner, announced plans in 2016 to close its two reactors by 2025. Two years later, it withdrew an earlier application to the commission to extend its license.

But the company reversed course in 2022 at the urging of Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration, which said closure would make it difficult for the state to reach its carbon-free goals and threaten grid stability. Independent researchers and scientists maintained that it would cost the state more to close the facility than to keep it open until 2035, and closure could lead to a decrease in emission reductions.

The NRC agreed — at Hanson's urging — to reconsider a request for a new license that previously had been made in 2009. That process is ongoing, but the plant will be open well beyond 2025.

"Without that, those workers would be out of a job," Warren said. "Chairman Hanson protected our members' jobs with common-sense guidelines that benefited the entire industry."

The Chairman's Track Record

Like Baran, Hanson also has been willing to meet with IBEW members. Toledo, Ohio, Local 245 saw that firsthand last summer, when they met with Hanson and Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station.

"He showed interest in the well-being of our workforce there," Business Manager Shane Bauman said. "We talked about safety, reliability and morale."

Energy Harbor took over ownership of the plant after parent company First Energy emerged from bankruptcy in 2020. It took Local 245 more than a year to negotiate its first successor contract with Energy Harbor, which is now in the process of being sold to Texas-based Vistra Corp.

"Despite the many challenges during the last few years, our members there have maintained a safety conscious attitude and been nothing short of professional," Bauman said. "I give them a lot of credit. But [Hanson] recognized we had some legitimate safety issues. He listened and asked some good questions."

"We took a good feeling from it," Bauman added. "It was a very positive meeting."

The NRC is supposed to include five members serving staggered five-year terms, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. No more than three can come from the same political party. A prolonged fight over Hanson's renomination could leave it with just three members, especially if the Senate is slow to act on Baran's replacement.

Warren said the facts don't back up the industry's attacks on the NRC.

"The commission is there to support, not promote, the industry," Warren said. "They regulate. They're a technical agency. The industry has its own struggles. It is facing a tremendous amount of challenges in terms of capital investment."

In the end, what's important for the IBEW and all stakeholders is a sense of continuity and stability on the commission, no matter what happens in the 2024 elections, Warren said. That's another reason for any openings to be filled during the next few months.

"Having a sense of consistency and knowing who you're working with is so important," he said.