Top U.S. nuclear regulators, scientists and industry leaders will flesh out details of the nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan and its implications for nuclear safety in the United States for key Senate and House energy committees this week.
A series of hearings will kick off tomorrow when Nuclear Regulatory Commission Executive Director of Operations Bill Borchardt updates the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about the status of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors on Japan's northeastern coast.
A magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 wracked the smoking, explosion-riddled row of reactors, and the situation seemed to take a foreboding turn in recent days. Japanese officials Friday expanded the voluntary evacuation zone up to 19 miles surrounding the crippled reactor complex.
At least two Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) subcontractors were exposed to elevated levels of radiation, mainly on their feet and legs, and rushed to a nearby hospital for further examination, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed.
And yesterday, water from one unit tested at 100,000 times the normal radiation levels at a plant, raising concerns about the ability of workers to continue making repairs.
Environmental and industry representatives also will be testifying at tomorrow's hearing, including David Lochbaum, chief nuclear safety official of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has repeatedly questioned the safety of the Daiichi plant's General Electric Mark 1 reactor design. Such a design is used in almost a quarter of the United States' nuclear fleet.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko will once again take the spotlight to answer questions surrounding a national review of the country's 104 nuclear plants Wednesday before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee and again Thursday before the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, likely will push Jaczko for a review of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor and Southern California Edison's San Onofre plant in San Clement.
Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sent the chairman a letter on March 16 seeking a review of the facilities, and Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) later called on NRC to immediately halt its review for a license application for the Diablo Canyon reactor (E&ENews PM, March 24).
In the letter, Feinstein scolded NRC for allegedly failing to act on a 2008 California Energy Commission report that issued warnings about the two plants' ability to withstand "larger and more frequent earthquakes" or to address the identification of additional faultlines near the reactors.
Jaczko also may be peppered with questions on the extent of NRC's oversight of nuclear plants and spent fuel pools, whether there is sufficient backup power for both reactors and cooling systems, and what major challenges the agency faces in ensuring the safety of the country's reactors.
Discussions about the pressing need for a national, permanent nuclear waste repository are also likely to surface during the Thursday hearing at which Jaczko will defend NRC's fiscal 2012 budget.
The chairman did not include funds in the 2012 request to continue developing Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent nuclear waste repository, even though NRC has not formally decided whether the Department of Energy can legally withdraw its application to develop the site.
House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said this month it is "beyond DOE's purview" to close down Yucca (E&E Daily, March 16).
The states of Washington, South Carolina and other challengers sued over their objections to DOE's withdrawal, and a federal appeals court last week indicated that while their challenge may be premature, a lawsuit could be filed at a later time if NRC fails to make a decision on whether DOE can pull its application.
Schedule: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing is tomorrow at 10 a.m. in 366 Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Witnesses: Department of Energy acting Assistant Secretary of the Office of Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons; Nuclear Regulatory Commission Executive Director for Operations Bill Borchardt; David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear power project; and Anthony Pietrangelo, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Schedule: The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing is Wednesday, March 30, at 10 a.m. in 138 Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Witnesses: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko and Peter Lyons, the Energy Department's acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy.
Schedule: The House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee hearing is Thursday, March 31, at 10 a.m. in 2362-B Rayburn House Office Building.
Witnesses: NRC's Jaczko and DOE's Lyons.