Gregory Jaczko: What the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Can Learn From Fukushima


January 17, 2012
Jaczko was appointed chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] by President Obama in 2009. Previously, Jaczko, who has a PhD in physics, served as an NRC commissioner and on Sen. Harry Reid’s [D-Nev.] staff. In the wake of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Jaczko says the U.S. has “to go forward always with that expectation that an accident can happen, and we have to do the right things to prevent it.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 17, 2011.

What’s it like being the NRC chairman and enduring an event like Fukushima?

… We had experts at this agency who have years and years of experience thinking about, planning for and exercising against scenarios like this. So we have a lot of built-in institutional knowledge which we could turn to and rely on, and that’s really what we did.

As events started to materialize, we had good information about the types of plants they were. They were similar to plants here in the United States, so we were able to get a good sense of what were the likely kinds of things that could go wrong and what would the consequences be.

… Ultimately we dispatched a group of people to Japan to really be there in Tokyo to interface more directly with their counterparts and with U.S. officials in Japan.

What was your conduit of information immediately afterward? How did you understand how events transpired?

It was a combination of different sources. Some of it did come from more of our regulatory counterparts, NISA [Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency] and other organizations in Japan, through the media. …

Certainly in the beginning, a lot of the information was really basic information, and we had to turn to our own expertise and our own knowledge base really to fill in the gaps where they were, and trying to figure out as best we could what was happening.

Three core meltdowns, all the hydrogen explosions. How does this rate in the history of nuclear power?

I would characterize it as the second worst accident. Clearly it’s more significant than Three Mile Island [in 1979], which happened here in the United States. The release of radiation and the immediate impacts to health and safety were not nearly the same as they were with Chernobyl [in 1986].

“If I were to look at [Fukushima] as an overarching lesson, I think it’s fundamentally that accidents in nuclear power plants can still happen, so we have to continue to be vigilant. We cannot become complacent because we’ve had a very good track record in the United States.”

But it’s a significant amount of radiation that was released, a significant evacuation, and extended evacuation of a population around the facility. So I would put it up there really as the number two accident.

Because this design was widely used around the world, is it more of a wake-up call?

I think it’s certainly more directly applicable here in the United States, and that’s something that I think we’re taking very seriously.

The design of the reactors in Chernobyl was very different technically, so there weren’t necessarily as many direct lessons here for us in the United States. …

What changes do you see now need to occur, lessons of Fukushima?

I think we’re still working to figure that out. The commission has a set of recommendations in front of us from a task force. Those are very good, common-sense recommendations, and they deal with some of the more basic lessons from Japan, first and foremost that the loss of all electric power is a very significant accident.

Now, that’s something that we’ve known. We’ve done studies that tell us that if you have that kind of situation, there’s likely to be fuel damage and then potentially a release of radiation.

That’s what we saw, but I think what it told us is we really have to look carefully here in the United States about how long we expect a plant to be able to deal with that kind of a situation, and I think what we saw in Fukushima was that it may be longer than we’d anticipated. So that’s one of the more obvious technical issues.

If I were to look at it as an overarching lesson, if you will, I think it’s fundamentally that accidents in nuclear power plants can still happen, so we have to continue to be vigilant. We cannot become complacent because we’ve had a very good track record in the United States of not having any serious accidents since really Three Mile Island.

But that’s not a basis for going forward. We have to go forward always with that expectation that an accident can happen, and we have to do the right things to prevent it.

Wouldn’t it have been difficult to think of Fukushima’s scenario in advance?

If you think about the scenarios as sometimes a natural hazard can take out multiple systems, those are the kinds of things that we do think about and envision. We have modeling capabilities that allow us to probably go beyond what our brain sometimes can piece together as the kinds of systems that can fail simultaneously. …

Invariably I think right now the kinds of situations in which you [have] accidents are going to be those in which something has happened that you haven’t necessarily thought about, or that you thought about but you misunderstood, or you misanalyzed, or you just missed. …

“Defense in depth” means [what]?

It’s a philosophy that … we know we don’t know everything. So if we have a system, we want to make sure that there [are] ways that if that system were to fail, there’s another system that could help back that up. …

It means in this country that, first and foremost, we want to do everything we can to protect the reactor fuel, to make sure that the fuel doesn’t get damaged. If that were to happen — because some systems were to fail or because we have some natural hazard that we never envisioned — we want to make sure we have a good ability to mitigate the impacts of that fuel damage so we have a containment system. And that if that system were to fail, ultimately we’ve got a way to make sure that people are protected and that the radiation exposure is minimized through evacuations or other types of methods.

How was Fukushima a surprise to the whole nuclear industry?

There’s a lot of things there that we knew, in particular this idea that station blackout and an extended loss of all electrical power is a very serious situation. …

What I think we’ve learned from Fukushima is that we may need to make some changes [as] to how we go about addressing that.

The basics and the operation of [the General Electric] Mark 1 or the BWR [boiling water] reactor designs that were used there, how they perform in an accident, in many ways was also very much in line with what we knew and understood; that hydrogen generation is a very important issue and something that needs to be controlled and maintained.

… In this case, I think there wasn’t really a full appreciation for what the impacts could be from a tsunami, and how that flooding could disable almost all the electrical distribution systems. And if you lose the ability to distribute electricity, you ultimately lose the ability to operate a lot of your basic safety systems.

What was really new in a way was the fact that here was something we hadn’t really envisioned that could take out all of these basic safety systems.

A common cause taking out multiple layers of defense is what you want to avoid.

The common-cause failure, a very important principle in the nuclear power industry, you want to avoid at all costs, because you don’t want there to be one single thing that can disable a whole bunch of systems. You always want to have redundancy and ways to avoid that.

That’s why we get back to this idea of defense in depth. We want to have a system that recognizes that we may not identify every common-cause failure. So if there is that kind of failure, we want to make sure we have another barrier to make sure that ultimately the public is protected.

Vulnerabilities at Fukushima: backup generators. Why was that overlooked?

I think there’s going to be a lot of work by the Japanese and probably international peer review groups to try and understand how some of those issues that now appear to have been vulnerabilities weren’t addressed earlier.

But where we are in the nuclear power industry now, it’s always going to be the thing that we didn’t anticipate that’s probably going to cause the problems.

There’s a lot of work that goes in right now to ensuring a very robust safety program, very robust training of the people who work in this industry. So it’s going to be something that we missed, and that’s why this idea of defense in depth is so important, because that’s how we make up for those areas in which we miss something.

How long should a nuclear power plant in the U.S. be able to cope without electricity?

Right now generally plants can go for anywhere from four to 16 hours.

Is that enough?

They need to be able to cope as long as it takes to ensure that ultimately you don’t have serious damage to the reactor fuel. We think it’s a longer period of time now than four to 16 hours.

We had a task force that gave the commission some recommendations, and what they thought about is doing that in two phases. You need to be able to cope for about eight hours to be able to prepare, and then get more extended coping capabilities for much longer, anywhere from 72 hours or possibly even longer.

Bottom line, this isn’t something that ultimately should see itself as an accident scenario in the future, because it’s perfectly preventable as long as we take the right steps to ensure that we can deal with the electrical power distribution until the electrical cavalry, if you will, can get to the scene and ensure a more stable way to get electrical power.

Seventy-two hours is the number?

Seventy-two hours I think is a good starting place, maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less. A lot of it depends on the system that we structure. …

Is that 72 hours an unreasonable thing to ask of the nuclear industry?

… I think that’s perfectly reasonable and something that we should do, and I don’t think anyone wants to see a station blackout or an extended station blackout be the cause of an accident anywhere.

How soon will that be implemented?

It will probably take some time for us to get that implemented. It’s something we’ll have to put through our regulation-generating process, which probably will take a few years.

In the meantime, what I think we need to do is make sure that we have some kind of capability, maybe not with all the bells and whistles, but a basic capability to get additional power as necessary to the sites. …

Do you think the NRC should embrace what the task force recommends lock, stock and barrel?

… There are 12 very common-sense recommendations, and I’m supportive of them.

I think there are some questions about implementing and [about] the time frame and how we go about getting them all done that we need to really delve into and work through. But that’s something that the commission is working on right now, and I hope sometime in the next 90 days that we’ll come to some conclusions about that.

How soon do you think you have to act on the Fukushima accident so as not to lose momentum?

I think it’s important that we do everything as quickly as we can but recognizing there’s a few principles that are important.

One, we want to make sure that we don’t do anything that increases the likelihood of an accident. We don’t want to be distracting operators. We don’t want to be distracting the plants unnecessarily.

So we have to do it methodically; we have to do it systematically. But I think the principle ultimately is that we have to do what we need to do to make sure that there’s not an accident like this in the United States.

We know that the likelihood of something like a Fukushima accident happening here is very, very low, but we know it’s not impossible. So we want to make sure we act quickly enough, because I think the biggest failure would be for us to have this kind of a situation happen — not employ the lessons here, and to have something like that happen in the United States. That would be a failure on the part of the regulator and the industry as a whole.

Are you going to rely on the industry to do this voluntarily?

… Fundamentally I think it’s important that we put in requirements of things we think are necessary.

Over the years, the commission has tried different approaches. Sometimes it was to raise an issue and have the industry come in with a voluntary effort to address that. Sometimes we’ve gone out with orders or other kind of regulatory tools to impose a requirement.

In this case, it’s clear that some of these issues we’re dealing with were issues that were raised in the past. In some cases they were left to voluntary initiatives, and that’s probably just not the right approach going forward, so we need them in a more formal regulatory process.

If you had to do all these things, it would be expensive for the industry. Do we know how much?

We don’t. … But the basic requirement would be irrespective of cost, and I’ve heard comments from some people in the industry that said they don’t see this as a significant cost. …

Why do things tend to languish at the NRC?

I wouldn’t say that things move slowly.

Thirty-plus years since Browns Ferry [nuclear power plant fire in Alabama] — that’s pretty slow, isn’t it?

I think in that 30 years we’ve made a lot of changes to the fire protection program. We still have some lingering issues that we want to get resolved and we want to get done.

Fire protection has been very close to my heart as both a commissioner and as chairman, because I think it is an issue that we need to move to a more advanced and a more effective way to regulate.

Designing a nuclear power plant in the ’60s and ’70s was a very different process than it is today, and people didn’t necessarily consider very simple principles that would have gone a long way to reducing the risk of fire.

So when we learned that this was a more important issue than we originally thought, it’s sometimes very difficult to go back and re-impose the right design on a plant that’s already been built where you have concrete walls that are irremovable or other kinds of structures that just can’t be changed.

… As we try and come [up] with a solution that meets our safety requirements but recognizes the realities of the plants as they’ve been built, that’s where it gets a little bit difficult, and I think that’s what we struggled with over the years.

Must be frustrating being so many years later?

It’s something we need to get behind us and for the very simple reason that new issues will come up.

Of course, Fukushima is probably the most important one we’re dealing with now, so if we haven’t tackled yesterday’s problems when today’s problems come up, it makes it all that much more difficult to move forward.

But I think the agency is committed to doing that for fire protection in particular. We have a whole new program that we’re now really beginning to engage that will be a much better approach to … ensuring that the plants are safe from a fire.

Can you assure me that we won’t sit down 30 years from now and be talking about the Fukushima report and why it hasn’t been implemented?

I was very concerned about in a couple years not being able to have a good answer for what’s coming out of this Fukushima incident, so I very early called on the commission to, in the next 90 days, act on the recommendations themselves, but, more importantly, make sure that the implementation could be done in five years.

I was very pleased to hear that the industry clearly agreed with the assessment that these changes need to be implemented in five years. So we’ve set that benchmark, and I think everyone will be committed to achieving it.

Five years may sound like a long time, but it really is I think a reasonable time to get all the changes done. …

That assumes the commission has come to an agreement?

That’s the starting point. There’s both a 90-day period and then the five years, and I think we’re making very good progress on getting us to dispositioning these recommendations.

The Congress and the American people established this commission so that we’d have a lot of good people coming together and thinking about these issues. Invariably there’s going to be differences of opinions. I don’t expect in the end that the commission will adopt all of the recommendations of the task force. I’m sure that [there will] be some that we’ll take and some that we may modify or change, and there may be one or two that we don’t agree need to be done.

But the most important thing is for us to make those decisions in a timely way so we can get to that phase of implementing them, because [if] we take three years to figure out what we need to do, we’re not going to be able to reach that five-year goal of implementation, and I think everybody is committed to getting there.

[Editors’ Note: The 90-day window Gregory Jaczko initially hoped for has long past, in part due to the fact that the five-member NRC hasn’t been able to come to a consensus about approving the recommendations. Recently, an NRC spokesperson told FRONTLINE that they are, in fact, in the process of implementing the task force’s recommendations, and pointed us to this blog post about their adjusted approach. The agency still holds the goal of having the recommendations in place by 2016.]

What recommendations do you feel should not be compromised?

It’s very important that we move forward with a change to our station blackout requirements.

It’s very important that we put in place some kind of venting program for some of the Mark or some of the boiling water reactor designs that don’t currently have these so-called hardened vents, which is a way to make sure that hydrogen can be released if it’s generated so you don’t have the kind of explosions that we saw at Japan.

If I look at the [12] recommendations, there’s probably six that directly apply to licensees, and I think all of those, it’s important that they get implemented. The question really comes down to the time scale and the timing of which ones go first and which ones are second. …

Would the industry prefer not to deal with this?

I think anybody who works in a safety-sensitive industry would prefer that there aren’t accidents. That’s what we strive for every day, to make sure that that doesn’t happen.

So it’s now in front of us, and it’s up to the industry, it’s up to the regulator to make sure we do the right thing ultimately to ensure that we protect public health and safety.

Do you expect the industry will resist many of these recommendations?

I suspect that the industry is going to have comments and that there are going to be some areas where they’ll disagree with the task force. But as I talk to people in the industry, and as I talk to people throughout the world, there does seem to be kind of a consensus, or a general understanding of the kinds of things that need to be addressed, that need to be changed. …

We need to make sure we understand all the natural hazards, so here in the United States that means we want to make sure we understand any flooding, any earthquakes or tornadoes that could affect a plant, as well as seismic events, hurricanes, all the kinds of natural hazards that are out there. Everybody appreciates that and recognizes that needs to be done.

And station blackout is clearly an issue that people recognize needs to be addressed, so I think there’s a lot more agreement here than there is disagreement about what needs to be done.

Five years from now, what will be different?

I hope five years from now we’re going to [have] plants that will be able to cope with a station blackout for a much longer period of time.

Five years from now I expect that plants will have an updated and revised understanding of the natural phenomenon that could affect their plant.

I expect that any of the boiling water reactors out there that are vulnerable to hydrogen combustion-type of events will have hardened vents where they need them. …

But most importantly, I expect five years from now that we haven’t had an accident like the accident you saw in Japan.

In the U.S., in a similar situation as Japan, does the plant operator have to call the White House for permission to do anything?

The plant operators have the ability to take action without a regulatory approval if it’s necessary for a safety decision.

We, I think after the Three Mile Island incident, realized that having prompt and effective decision making in an incident like this was very important. So we made changes to our program after that to make sure that we would be there to facilitate the licensees taking the action that they need and have the ability to take immediate action, to issue immediate orders, to do whatever is necessary ultimately to protect public health and safety.

Here in the United States, the ultimate regulatory decisions rest just with the NRC. So we have the authority to approve changes that need to be made by the plants, but the plants also have the authority to take action that they need in order to protect the core, to do other safety things that they need to do.

Was precious time wasted for decisions in Japan?

It’s hard to say at this point. Whenever I look back at this issue, I always remember at the time what was going on. There had [been] an earthquake of significant [magnitude] that created widespread damage and destruction followed by a tsunami of significant [magnitude]. …

Looking back, it’s easy to say that certain things could have or should have been done, but I don’t think I’m in a position to say whether the right things were done or the wrong things were done. …

Does the U.S. need to look at its decision-making process during a crisis here, or is it fixed?

I think right now it’s in good shape. We had the opportunity with the Three Mile Island accident to revisit and examine some of those decision-making processes. Any time there’s an incident like this, there’s always going to be things that you can do better afterward.

Right now our focus is more on how do we look at the regulatory issues in the plants? It’s not so much on the decision-making process at the agency or in the industry, because I think ultimately it’s a different country with a slightly different system, so it’s not clear that those things would necessarily be applicable here in the United States. …

The industry [itself] is looking at ways that they can enhance their collective decision making. They’re looking at ways to share information better, to share equipment better.

… There are things already that they’ve looked at and said: “You know what? We want to make sure we have a way to get a particular pump that we may not have from another licensee or from another one of our facilities, or make sure that they have those kinds of arrangements in place to rapidly distribute equipment or materials if necessary.”

A more rigorous way of notifying these facilities and operators of known defects and forcing them to take action in a more formal way?

I think we have a very formal program to do that. We have a number of ways that we communicate with our licensees, and it’s on a scale from less formal to very formal, … so I think we have very good communication with our licensees in regard to those issues.

It’s not to say that’s not a challenge going forward. Decades ago, when the nuclear industry was a very homegrown domestic industry, it was easy to have a much better handle of the supply chain, of the equipment, of the parts than it is in a much more global and international industry.

So one of the things that we’re doing right now as an agency is working very closely with our counterparts in other countries to share information and to understand better equipment and parts that may be manufactured in other countries. …

Do you regret suggesting a much larger exclusion zone [for Americans near Fukushima of 50 miles] than the Japanese [12.5 miles initially]?

Not at all. We provided, and I provided, what we had as the best available information at the time. That was based on our read of what was happening in Japan, and then it was based on our understanding of what we thought was appropriate for us to do for American citizens in Japan.

I don’t regret … any decisions we made or any of the statements we made. We provided information that we thought, and still believe, is reliable, credible information. …

Do we know how to evacuate, communicate and avoid panic?

I think it’s very important to have a credible and trusted regulator who’s communicating in that time frame, and that’s what the NRC is. I come to work every day with 4,000 people who are dedicated to public health and safety, so I think we provide that credible voice.

I think what we did in the Japan event shows that we’re willing to provide information transparently to the public, which I think is what the public ultimately wants and needs to have.

… When it comes to the evacuations and the emergency planning, we do require all of the plants in this country to do tests every two years of their emergency planning system.

In some cases those tests are very involved. They involve the states and the local governments that ultimately have the decision-making authority to direct or to conduct an evacuation.

So we have a very rigorous program right now to do that, and I’m sure there will be things, as the task force recommended, that we need to look at to further strengthen and enhance that system. …

Will Fukushima change the way license renewals should be looked at?

Right now the commission is considering that very question. We have had some very interested members of the public who have posed that question to us.

I can’t go into too much more detail about that because of the formal way our process works, but I’ll say this: We don’t look at any plant differently, whether it’s five years old or 45 years old or 50 years old.

Every plant every day has to meet our regular safety standards, and if we get new information that tells us that something needs to be changed, we’ll act on that to get those changes done as quickly as we can.

As they get older, should they be held to a higher standard of safety?

They are in many ways. Every plant that gets a license extension has to have an additional set of programs in place to deal with the aging of systems and components that are important for safety. So they get that added extra requirement that’s different for a plant that may be 10 years old. …

Can you run these plants for 80 years?

I don’t know yet, and I don’t think we’ll know for probably a few more years.

Right now we have plants that are operating in year 41 or 42 of their life. They were originally designed with 40 years in mind, and as we’ve reviewed them, we’ve given them an extra 20 years. …

If we ever found something that said that they can’t operate beyond 46 years or 47 years, then we would take the appropriate action to ensure that they’re shut down.

Is 80 years realistic?

It’s a combination of factors. There’s the safety issue, and then there’s the economic issue.

In principle, any plant that’s 80 years old on the name plate may actually only be 30 or 40 years old when you look at all the equipment and the components inside. So sometimes what this really comes down to is, is it economical to continue to replace parts?

It’s like you have a car. That car may get to a certain age and you lose the clutch. You decide it’s really not worth replacing this clutch because you know that the brakes are going to wear in three years. So it may not be worth it to replace the clutch, and you decide at that point not to operate.

Right now the biggest issue that we look at is the concrete. The big concrete structures, we look to make sure that those can last for 40 years, or 60 years in this case.

Right now we’re doing research to see, are there going to be effects that would occur beyond 60 years that would say that this concrete really isn’t going to be able to perform its safety function appropriately? We don’t know for sure yet what the answer to that question is. So that’s a difficult piece of equipment to replace.

The other big issue is the reactor vessel itself, the thing that contains the reactor fuel. We know that has a finite limit. It’s like having a glass filled with hot water. If you dumped a bunch of ice cubes in that, that glass would kind of undergo some stresses, and if you kept doing that, eventually that glass would crack.

These reactor vessels undergo the similar kinds of stresses as they undergo these significant temperature changes if they have to do an automatic shutdown. We know that has an effect on the metal, and eventually it’s going to get to a point where we no longer think it’s safe to continue to operate.

We’ve done some studies to tell us what that time frame is, but it doesn’t mean again that the plant would be shut down. It just means that component would need to be replaced, and that gets into an economic issue then really of whether it’s economically reasonable to replace that or repair that component. …

Has Japan addressed the problem, lack of arm’s-length relationship between the regulators and operators? What extent do you guard against that here?

… I think we’re a very strong independent agency. We’re set up to be that way, and that’s what I see carried out every day by the people who work this agency.

But it’s always something we want to take a look at, and we want to make sure that we maintain that independence. …

Was it too cozy [of a relationship] in Japan?

That’s something that people are looking at, and the Japanese themselves have recommended and begun implementing a change in the way that they have their regulatory system to ensure that they’re separating a little bit better that idea of promotion and regulation.

That’s something that we went through in the early days of our existence. We used to [be] part of a bigger agency called the Atomic Energy Commission, which had both the responsibility to promote nuclear power and to regulate it, in addition to some other things. People recognized after some experience with that system that it wasn’t really an effective system. You needed to isolate or separate the regulatory functions from the promotional functions, and that’s where the NRC came from. …

Hard to be a booster and regulate at the same time?

It really is a difficult thing, and that’s why we were created as a separate agency, to make sure we didn’t have that distraction and that challenge. …

How significant is this Fukushima event for the future of nuclear power? [Is it the] beginning of the end?

I think that’s an unknown question right now. When I look at it as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, what I think about is safe nuclear power. That’s our job, to make sure that if nuclear power is going to exist in this country, that it’s safe and it’s secure.

If we do our jobs right, I think ultimately that there will probably be more nuclear power.

… If ultimately the kinds of safety enhancements that are necessary are just not determined to be cost-effective, then there probably won’t be plants.

We have a number of utilities who have expressed interest in nuclear construction in this country. We are reviewing a number of applications for new reactors, and … if those designs and those applications meet our safety standards, we’ll move forward with approvals. If they don’t, then we won’t.

Do you expect that we’ll see additional plants being built in the U.S.?

Right now there’s really two plants that are moving forward with potential construction if they get a license. I suspect that if we issue that license, they’ll continue with construction, and I think others will look to see how that process goes to see whether they want to move forward and continue.

Ultimately the question about what kinds of electricity generation we have is a complicated one, depending on the price of other competing fuels and broad questions about energy policy and electricity policy which really are outside the scope of our agency.

You don’t take a pro or con position for nuclear power?

I take a position on nuclear safety, and I’m all for nuclear safety and for making sure that this agency does everything it can to protect public health and safety.

But you don’t want to put yourself out of business?

… If this country decided that, as a policy matter, we wouldn’t have nuclear power, then that’s a decision for others to make, and if this country decides that they want to pursue nuclear power, it’s our job to make sure it’s safe and secure. …

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