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Meet the former Henry Waxman staffer fighting for extra red tape at a key federal agency

by Resurgent Insider Read Profile arrow_right_alt

As anyone tracking news in key 2020 states Ohio and Pennsylvania can tell you, nuclear energy hasn’t been in the best of shape lately. Under pricing pressure from natural gas, and ongoing pressure from progressives who ostensibly want to both eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and gut nuclear power which produces none, the industry isn’t nearly as strong as it was decades ago. Both states have looked at packages aimed at saving nuclear, which have proved controversial especially with self-described environmentalists.

Meanwhile, this year marked the forty-year anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident, often regarded as the last serious nuclear incident in American history. Concerns about storage of nuclear waste continue, but in general, the technology has a pretty good safety record in the US and does what Democrats supposedly want (it generates electricity while not emitting more CO2). 

This all explains why staff—not political appointees— at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have recommended rolling back red tape they view as excessive and unwarranted focused on nuclear. And it does nothing to explain why Commissioner Jeff Baran, who won a fresh term in 2017, is raising hell about the proposed regulatory overhaul.

No surprise: Baran is attacking the plan based on the notion that some red tape cutting will mean massive, fresh safety problems and presumably nuclear contamination-empowered Godzillas popping up here, there and everywhere. But before everyone starts buying what Baran is selling just a little too much—and he loves to be quoted by the media— it’s worth taking a look at the guy’s bio.

According to this Transmission Hub piece written at the time of Baran’s nomination, “Baran currently serves as the Democratic Staff Director for Energy and Environment for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He has worked since 2009 for the committee.” 

Who headed the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2009? That’s right: Rep. Henry Waxman—the extremely liberal California Democrat who authored the extremely liberal 2009 House cap-and-trade bill.

Also no surprise then: Waxman offered Baran a “glowing recommendation” when he was nominated in 2014. Waxman specifically called Baran “a wonderful pick.”

Of course, it’s hypothetically possible to earn praise from extremely liberal, pro-regulation Democrats without actually being a bad choice for a job like this. But it seems like people with nuclear power expertise regarded Baran at the time as far more of a hack than an expert.  When Baran was nominated, Rod Adams of “Atomic Insights” wrote this about him:

All searches and inquiries point to the fact that he is a denizen of Capitol Hill who started serving as a staffer immediately after finishing law school and has never worked outside of the narrow confines of Washington, DC. Any and all association that he has with nuclear energy is as an “issue” or “policy” and not as a complex, valuable technical endeavor worthy of intense study to obtain mastery.

He has never worked with equipment, measuring devices, metal, welding, thick concrete, construction, generators, or pollution control devices. He has no apparent experience in fault tree analysis, implementing regulatory requirements, writing procedures, performing or verifying engineering calculations or selecting engineering design criteria. He has never worked with skilled technicians, top notch scientists, or operational experts.

In short, Baran has nothing in his background that would make it possible for him to be a contributing member of a responsible body of regulators that serve as the single gatekeeper for a vital technical field that includes not just energy production but all industrial use of radiation and radioactive materials.

My recommendation is for the Administration to find a more qualified nominee that can bring something to the commission other than focused Capitol Hill-only experience. These days, that perspective is even more disfunctional (sic) than usual; the words cooperation, collegiality and compromise seem to have been exorcised from the Capitol Hill training manual. Ideally she should have deep experience with knowledge of nuclear technology, plant operations, construction, regulation development, or oversight.

For those wondering, according to his LinkedIn profile, Adams is a retired Navy officer who also founded and ran an atomic engine company and is a managing member of Nucleation Capital LP—so the odds are that he both knows what he’s talking about, and also is very much not a disinterested observer.

Baran remains a pretty low-profile figure. However, as he continues to make noise about the NRC’s proposed red-tape cutting, these details from his resume should probably garner more attention. Despite being part-way through a second term at the agency, he may not be the great scientific expert taking a totally neutral and unbiased view that media thinks when they run to him for quotes on this proposal.

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