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.
“Madam chairman, I’d like to hear from the commissioner on where they are in the process,” Vitter said.
“Well, I’m running out of time, so you can ask her on your time,” Boxer said.
Shortly thereafter, with Boxer once again badgering Macfarlane, this time over San Onofre, Vitter interjected once again.
“Madam chairman, will you let our witnesses answer your question?” Vitter said. “I mean, the way it normally works is you get to ask the question, but they do get to answer.”
Boxer grew weary of Vitter’s interruptions.
“Excuse me,” she said at one point, gaveling him down. “When you have this gavel, you make the rules.”
For his part, Vitter maintained that the nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants has “a long track record of safety” and that members of Congress “should not be committed to regulating just for the sake of regulating.”
“Such a mindset results in economic hardship and a diminished capacity for our energy sector to meet the needs of this nation,” he said.
Vitter suggested there exists a “subversive effort to cripple the nuclear industry,” asserting that Obama administration actions like nixing the proposed Yucca Mountain waste storage facility in Nevada and a new rule for cooling water intake systems represent “a clear example of a long-term strategy to shut down more of our nation’s nuclear reactors.”
“I firmly believe that nuclear energy should play a role in meeting our domestic energy needs,” Vitter said. “However, I am concerned that Senate Democrats are using these hearings to provide cover for their efforts to kill nuclear generation in their own states, which has only served to decrease the output and capacity of our nation’s reliable nuclear reactor fleet. Ironically, these shutdowns will increase greenhouse gas emissions as states struggle to find other baseload power.”
Efforts to force the NRC to promulgate regulations that offer no real safety gains “is a classic example of the sprawling big government mindset that persists in Washington,” he said.
Calls for stronger safety efforts at the nation’s nuclear power facilities came after the Fukushima nuclear plant failed as the result of a 45-foot tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, resulting in the greatest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, in Ukraine, in 1986.
The task force appointed in wake of the incident recommended, among other things, enhancing the ability of facilities to maintain safety during the loss of electrical power, looking into the impact of floods and earthquakes on the plants, and determining ways to confine or filter radioactive materials if a core has been damaged.