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Boxer Slams Nuclear Commission for Post-Fukushima Foot-Dragging

Vitter contends, though, that they “should not be committed to regulating just for the sake of regulating.”

by
Bill Straub

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June 5, 2014 - 11:19 pm
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WASHINGTON – The chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured a Senate committee that the nation’s nuclear power plants “continue to operate safely” but drew the ire of a key lawmaker who asserted the agency isn’t doing enough to assure the public’s safety.

Allison Macfarlane, appointed to the commission by President Obama almost two years ago, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that safety standards implemented in wake of the Fukushima nuclear plant breakdown in Japan in March 2011 are progressing as planned.

“The NRC continues to monitor the implementation of the required safety enhancements,” Macfarlane said. “We are seeing the reactors with upcoming fall outages preparing to make modifications to safety systems to provide additional supplies of electrical power and multiple ways to inject cooling water into the reactors and spent fuel pools. They are also positioning additional portable equipment that is arriving at the sites.”

After the Fukushima incident, Macfarlane said, the NRC required reactor licensees to prove they were capable of protecting their facilities from natural disasters. The plants, she said, “are making progress.”

“Additionally, plants have now begun installing additional reliable instrumentation to monitor water levels in the spent fuel pools following a beyond-design-basis event,” she said. “Overall, licensees are making significant progress in implementing our Fukushima-related requirements.”

But in an unusual rebuke from a member of the president’s own party, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the committee chairman, charged that the NRC has “lost sight” of its stated missions to “ensure the safe use of radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while protecting people and the environment.”

Boxer said the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force, made up of NRC senior staff, recommended 12 measures to upgrade safety in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns. To this point, the NRC has completed its own action on only four of those proposals and has failed to require reactor operators to complete implementation of any measures. Some reactor operators are still not in compliance with the safety requirements that were in place before Fukushima.

These implementation delays, Boxer said, place “the safety of the American people at risk.”

“Not only does NRC allow that fuel to be stored in the spent fuel pools indefinitely, NRC is considering requests from decommissioning reactor operators for exemptions from emergency response measures designed to protect nearby communities,” Boxer said. “While the Nuclear Energy Institute claimed in a letter sent to me yesterday that these exemptions are granted only when ‘special circumstances’ exist at a facility, the truth is that NRC has never once denied one. It rubber-stamps them every single time a reactor shuts down.”

Boxer expressed particular concern over what she characterized as “the installation of defective equipment” at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in her home state of California, asserting that NRC staff is preparing to allow the re-start of one of the reactors before it had received answers to the safety questions submitted to the facility’s owner, Southern California Edison.

The plant is located in an earthquake zone and a tsunami zone. A fire came within half a mile of the facility so an investigation into San Onofre, she said, is important “to avoid disastrous problems like this in the future.”

“In order for the nuclear industry to maintain the confidence of the American people at a time when it is increasingly challenged by safety and economic concerns, the agency charged with regulating the nuclear industry must always make public safety its number one priority,” Boxer said. “NRC’s recent track record does not inspire confidence.”

During questioning, Boxer asked Macfarlane if the NRC intends to exempt San Onofre, which currently is shut down, from certain safety requirements. Macfarlane refused to answer directly, sparking the chairwoman’s ire and placing Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the committee’s ranking member, in the unusual position of defending an administration official from the opposing party.

At one point, Boxer pressed Macfarlane on the 12 task force recommendations, asking whether any of them have been implemented and answering her own question by saying, “They haven’t.”

Macfarlane, through repeated interruptions from Boxer, sought to explain that the NRC has prioritized the recommendations and that some should be in place by the end of 2016. But Boxer insisted on eliciting a yes or no answer.

Vitter eventually stepped in.

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All Comments   (11)
All Comments   (11)
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Boxer's first elected position was as my county supervisor in Marin County. She's been on the warpath against anything nuclear since the first.

As a nuclear engineer who has been working on the fixes for US plants from Fukushima since literally Day Two, I can say we are making definite progress. Betterments are already in place but others are still in the works. My worry is that the rush to make political improvements would reduce safety or result in backfiting the backfits or both.

Boxer has NO CLUE and doesn't want to understand anything about nuclear.

I have no respect for that woman. I'm continually embarrassed to have her as one of my senators.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
Sounds like she has as much of a clue about nuclear power plants as she does about firearms.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
Let's build lots and lots of new, state of the art, nuclear power plants!
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
American Human..."These unnecessary regulatory burdens prevent the plants from making scheduled upgrades to maintain safety margins". So Boxer & company's goal is "unsafe nuclear power plants" then? WHY am I NOT surprised????
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
Um, I don't think there are any plans to reopen San Onofre, there may be plans to decommision it, remove the nuclear materials.

In this case I am largely sympathetic to my Senatress #2, Barbara W. Boxer. While we have not had any serious nuclear power plant accidents, well, neither had Fukushima. The basic designs of virtually all current nuclear power plants are not anything like fail-safe, and Fukushima really did show some new failure modes, yes three, four, five levels of failure deep but even so. The BP Macondo well blowout showed that an organization could blow right through a stack of three or four levels of redundancy with corner-cutting and sloppy management. People, huh?

It's for situations like this that, now and then, we actually find a use for people like Boxer.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
You are correct in that there is no probability that is either 1 or 0 however US plants have been designed with a greater degree of redundancy than Fukushima. There were several foolish things in that design such as EDG installed below flood level and no off site shutdown power. Non of these things exist in US plants. In the 40+ years of US commercial power generation there has never been an accident that has harmed anyone. TMI failed, yes, but it failed according to design and was completely contained.
The control systems for nuclear plants are both automatic and manual and have multiple redundant systems for safety related shutdowns etc.
I still say that the nuclear power industry just hasn't been giving Boxer any $$ and she's warning them to pay up. Maybe she's feeling the heat from someone?
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
Fukushima wasn't so much a case of foolish design as it was a case of a different set of priorities. Remember, the plant was designed to withstand an earthquake ~10x less powerful and a tsunami roughly 2/3 the size of what struck the site. The emergency diesels were sited high enough to survive the design tsunami. Locating them higher would have increased tsunami survivability, but it would have meant longer piping runs for the cooling seawater, which would have reduced earthquake survivability. Engineering is a matter of trade-offs, you just have to hope that you've correctly predicted what nature is going to throw at you.

TMI did not fail per design. The safety systems are designed to prevent fuel failure and melting. Pretty much everything that could go wrong with a nuclear reactor did. The basic design of the plant was flawed, the way information was presented to the operators was confusing, the operators didn't understand their indications, poor maintenance practices left an important safety system off-line, the operators failed to recognize the steam bubble forming in the core, they secured adding water to the leaking reactor because they were concerned about filling the plant solid, they stopped the pumps circulating water through the core because pressure fell too low, they didn't realize that by releasing primary coolant into the reactor building they were also releasing hydrogen gas. It was as bad as a reactor accident can get without deliberately trying to break the reactor or being in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the final result was zero deaths and no danger to the public.

In the aftermath of TMI, the US completely revamped the training and standards for operators. They're now taught that the first and only priority is keeping the core covered with water. Sacrifice whatever equipment necessary, violate any procedure, but keep the core covered. As long as the core is surrounded by water and not steam, it cannot melt down.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
The liberals absolutely HATE nuclear power and killed the only real solution for the world's growing electrical power needs in the 90's - fast breeder reactors. Their "dirty little secret" is if they get their way and go to all renewables, then the developing world will be condemned to a very bleak future - simply because enough windmills and solar farms cannot be built to supply the world's power needs..... It's impossible. I guess, though that as long as the liberals have enough for themselves then it's all ok.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
Responding to people like Boxer is useless, as useless as asking the NRC
to abandon its mission of making nuclear energy too expensive to use.

After Fukushima, the Japanese made plans to stop using nuclear energy;
When they realized the prohibitive cost of the alternatives they reversed
course.

In the US, it will take a prolonged nationwide loss of power due to some 'unexpected' interruption in fuel flow to cause the same course change;
Nothing like huddling in one's home, cold, hungry, and afraid, to cause
a reevaluation of the relative dangers of theoretical power-plant failure
versus the advantage of being able to go for years without refueling.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
Since the beginning of the Atomic Age, not a single member of the public has received significant radiation exposure from a US civilian nuclear power plant.

Exactly what record WOULD give this useless...person confidence in the NRC?
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
Okay, working from home aside, Barbara Boxer is completely wrong about the safety of nuclear power plants. I know this from experience.
The likelihood of a nuclear power plant accident harming the public at large is very remote. The nuclear power industry has triple redundancy in place for safe shutdowns (which is what this is all about). Quadruple redundancy is just a regulatory instance and most plants are struggling as to what they need to do over and above what they've done to protect against an incident that has almost no probability of happening.
There must be no nuclear power $$ coming to Boxer's campaign chest and this was probably a shot across the bow.
These unnecessary regulatory burdens prevent the plants from making scheduled upgrades to maintain safety margins.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
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