NRC inundated with FOIAs after Japan earthquake

Thursday - 6/9/2011, 8:17pm EDT

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is digging out of a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Japan and severely damaged some of its nuclear reactors.

Japan's damaged nuclear reactors drew worldwide attention to the safety of nuclear power, meaning the NRC received thousands of FOIA requests about the safety of American nuclear reactors.

Darren Ash, NRC's chief information officer and chief FOIA officer, said early on the volume of FOIAs increased from private citizens and media who wanted to know what the agency was doing both in response to the Japanese disaster, and to secure American reactors. Soon after the earthquake, NRC sent employees to support the U.S. ambassador to Japan on nuclear safety and other issues

"For an agency that has, up until recently, been extremely successive in backlogs and being responsive to FOIAs, this was significant and one that we weren't totally prepared for," he said. "Now we're having to relook at what is the best way to do it, especially with a lot of duplicative requests, and at the same time being able to do our regular job. We want to be responsive and we have to be responsive to FOIAs. So what is the right way to do it? We have established a task group to think through and be able to do it the right way."

Ash said NRC is looking at both new technology and new processes.

"Traditionally with a lot of FOIAs, you wait until you've completed it before you publish it on the Web," he said. "But I think to be able to meet the media demands, the needs of the citizens, the people who are asking for the information, we couldn't wait until the end. We don't know how long it will take. So it means publishing a lot of the content incrementally so we are able to at least meet the demands over time and not wait."

Along with changing the agency's FOIA technology and processes, Ash said there are several ongoing initiatives to continue to improve NRC's computing capabilities.

Ash said NRC will migrate to Microsoft Windows 7 operating system later this year from XP. The agency is testing the software to see which of its applications work with it. Those that do not, Ash said, may have to be terminated.

Ash said he's also focused on NRC's one problematic system, time-and-labor system, which received a red score on the IT Dashboard. He added that the program went through the TechStat session last year to help bring it back on course.

"It's been snakebit. It's one that is of focus for our CFO, who is the system owner, as well as our chairman because it's a system that is used by all of our employees," Ash said. "We had to rethink how we will implement that project--part of it was learning from past mistakes and past successes. So far so good."

Beyond the day-to-day oversight of IT projects, Ash also is playing a key role in planning of NRC's new headquarters building. Ash, who also wears the facilities management hat, wants to make sure the new building is prepared to meet future technology capabilities.

"We want to be able to find the right balance to ensure that we've got the cable and wiring that supports not just today, but five years, 10 years from now," he said. "When we think about video at the desktop, those type of bandwidth hogs type of needs, I don't want to rip out drywall to re-cable, rewire the building."

Ash said the building should be ready in fall of 2012.

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