NRC Commissioners Grilled on Nuclear Rules, Security, and Efficiency

“It’s as if the government—the [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)] and the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)]—is trying to regulate the nuclear energy industry out of business, just like it’s been trying to regulate fossil fuels out of business,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), during the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works’ eighth NRC oversight hearing since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi.

All five NRC commissioners testified at the hearing held on Jan. 30 and answered questions posed by the committee members. The main focus of the hearing was to review progress made by the NRC to incorporate lessons learned from the disaster in Japan and avoid a similar catastrophe at U.S. facilities. But the questioning quickly turned to each of the lawmakers’ political agendas.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was adamant about her right to obtain documents from the NRC pertaining to the flawed steam generators at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). She also questioned why a “two-person security rule,” which requires two people to be present whenever highly enriched uranium or plutonium is being handled in order to protect against an insider threat, has not been adopted by the commission, even though it has been recommended by NRC staff.

“The specific issue was that the staff had not completed a cost benefit analysis to assess whether or not the two person rule was appropriate,” said Commissioner William C. Ostendorff.

“I am completely flummoxed. This is a big and important issue and this business of a cost benefit analysis, when you’re dealing with a potential terror attack and a takeover of a nuclear plant? You’ve got to be kidding!” exclaimed Boxer. “I would say the benefit of preventing someone from stealing nuclear weapons material is pretty much priceless,” she added.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) focused on states’ involvement in the nuclear decommissioning process. He was dismayed that the decommissioning process could take as long as 60 years, although he said he didn’t expect the Vermont Yankee decommissioning to take that long. Sanders mentioned that the current rules allow the NRC to sit down with companies and negotiate a decommissioning process. “Generally speaking, the states do not have any significant role, Madame Chair, in that process. They can be observers, there can be public meetings, they can provide input, but at the end of the day the company and the NRC work out the agreement. Madame Chair, I think on the face of it, that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Sanders.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) focused on the Yucca Mountain debacle. “It’s really irresponsible and a failure of leadership that the Yucca Mountain safety evaluation report was halted in the first place and it shouldn’t have required a court ruling for the agency to comply with that law.”

“Many of us here anticipated a nuclear renaissance,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala). But that hasn’t happened. The U.S. is still producing basically the same number of megawatt-hours of nuclear power as it did in 2001. Sessions noted that in 2001 nuclear energy comprised 20.6% of total U.S. electricity generation, but by 2012, reliance on nuclear power had declined to 19%. “I am deeply concerned about a rash of shutdowns of U.S. nuclear power plants like Kewaunee Power Station in Wisconsin, Vermont Yankee, Crystal River Unit 3 in Florida, SONGS Unit 2 and 3 in California,” he added.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane tried to highlight some of the good that the NRC is doing. She said: “We continue to address lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident and implement appropriate regulatory enhancements. Licensees have purchased and staged backup equipment at reactor sites, installed supplemental flood barriers and pumps to mitigate extensive flooding, and are developing plans to install hardened vents and improved spent fuel pool instrumentation.”

“Implementation of these and other activities will continue throughout this year under NRC oversight. We plan to conduct audits at every site to test licensees’ implementation efforts and follow-up with detailed inspections once implementation is complete. We’re also making progress on several important rulemakings. We’re carefully ensuring that this work does not distract us, or the industry, from day-to-day nuclear safety priorities. The highest priority safety enhancements for the operating reactor fleet will be implemented by 2016.”

But the committee continued to focus on NRC struggles. When it was suggested that the NRC is understaffed for certain projects, which has caused lengthy delays, Sen. Inhofe pointed to increases in staffing in the early 2000s, intended to accommodate license and design approvals that never materialized.

“I hope you will also change your attitude about openness, transparency, [and] about moving a little quicker,” concluded Sen. Boxer.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)

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