Howard K. Shapar, 85

Howard K. Shapar Obituary: Former Legal Director of Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Howard K. Shapar was a leading authority on nuclear law.
Howard K. Shapar was a leading authority on nuclear law. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

Howard K. Shapar, 85, the former executive legal director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who wrote the legislation that helped establish the commission, died March 15 at his home in Chevy Chase after a heart attack.

Environmentalists in the 1970s objected that the Atomic Energy Commission, where Mr. Shapar then worked, both promoted and regulated nuclear power plants. Congress indicated that it was ready to act, so Mr. Shapar drafted the legislation that split the AEC into the Energy Research and Development Administration and the NRC.

He joined the NRC, managed a number of complex licensing and regulation issues and was one of the world's leading authorities on nuclear law for more than 40 years. In the 1980s, Mr. Shapar became director general and chief executive of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"He is one of those who made a major contribution to nuclear licensing reform," said Marc Rowden, a former NRC director who worked with Mr. Shapar for 15 years. "He was one of those who devised a regime for early approval for sites for nuclear power plants."

The siting of nuclear power plants was highly controversial in the 1970s, as environmentalists and local activists battled the energy industry over the safety of the plants and the ability of the industry and government to safely store spent fuel for thousands of years.

The industry contended that nuclear power plants were safe. One NRC task force refused to take the most dangerous class of nuclear accidents into consideration when licensing reactors, on the theory that the risk of such "Class 9" accidents was so remote as to be improbable. That decision came just months before the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, the worst commercial nuclear power accident in American history.

Mr. Shapar objected to the task force's decision in a memo that was later leaked to the press.

"It seems to me," Mr. Shapar wrote, "that any refusal to look at class 9 accidents or residual risks on a site specific basis will provoke substantial controversy and give rise to the implication that the commission is not interested in full disclosure of reactor risks to the people who may be affected by them."

The NRC was eventually forced to include the possibility of a catastrophic accident in its deliberations.

Born in Boston, Howard Kamber Shapar graduated from Boston Latin School and served in the Army's Counter Intelligence Corps at the end of World War II in Germany. After his discharge, he graduated from Amherst College as valedictorian in 1947 and from Yale Law School in 1950.

Mr. Shapar joined the AEC in Los Alamos, N.M., and after other assignments moved to Washington in 1962 to become the agency's assistant general counsel for licensing and regulation. He moved to the NRC as executive legal director, and went to Paris in 1982 to work for the OECD.

He returned to Washington in 1988 to join Shaw Pittman, a leading nuclear law firm, and Washington International Energy Group. He joined Egan, Fitzpatrick and Malsch in 2001 and retired in 2003.

He received the Distinguished Service Award from the NRC. Mr. Shapar was a founder and past president of the International Nuclear Law Association.

His marriage to Elizabeth Lucille Aske Shapar ended in divorce. A son from his second marriage, Pieter N. Shapar, died in 2005.

Survivors include his wife of 31 years, Henriette A.E. van Gerrevinck Shapar of Chevy Chase; and two children from his first marriage, Kristina M. Shapar of Stuttgart, Germany, and Stephen O.T. Shapar of Chevy Chase.

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