Partisan bickering erupted in the Senate today over how quickly the federal government should implement a dozen safety recommendations to ensure 104 nuclear plants in the United States are operating safely.
Top Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee criticized the federal task force charged with reviewing Japan's nuclear crisis and the safety of U.S. reactors for recommending "more Washington red tape" and called its proposals premature, potentially excessively, expensive and burdensome.
Democrats shot back, calling for swift implementation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's near-term task force recommendations to improve nuclear safety and prevent such a catastrophe from happening in this country.
Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) countered that "it's not red tape at all" and said the commission will be asked to testify every three months until the issue is addressed. "After the [terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011], we had all these great ideas ... nine years later, some of these things were implemented," Boxer said. "That is not going to happen."
The NRC panel released a report last month in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March, triggering hydrogen explosions, radioactive leaks and multiple evacuations. The task force called for strengthening the agency's regulatory system by requiring plant operators to re-evaluate and upgrade earthquake and flood risks, secure backup power and instrumentation to monitor and cool spent fuel pools, and handle lengthy losses of electric power to the plants (Greenwire, July 13).
Members of NRC have advocated differing approaches on how to move forward with implementing the recommendations but today said there is broad consensus to act immediately on some proposals.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has said the agency should digest and prioritize the near-term task force recommendations within 90 days and make any crucial changes within five years.
NRC Commissioner George Apostolakis, a Democrat, today said he agrees with Jaczko but wants NRC's senior management to review the task force proposals because they could change or add safety requirements. "I don't think we should limit ourselves to what the task force said," he said.
Republican Commissioners William Ostendorff and Kristine Svinicki and Democratic Commissioner William Magwood have called for a more studied approach before implementing the proposals but acknowledged today there is consensus to move forward quickly (E&E Daily, Aug. 1).
Specifically, Ostendorff outlined at least half a dozen recommendations to be immediately imposed, including seismic and flooding reviews and inspections, safeguards to protect plants from losing off- and on-site power, increased training for severe accidents and a review of how the reactors are vented.
Svinicki also said she would support immediately requiring seismic and flooding reviews and inspections but urged NRC senior management's input before moving forward too quickly.
Jaczko said the five-members of NRC agree they should act quickly to prioritize the recommendations and that the "discussion is really about semantics."
Jaczko is the only panel member who has not submitted an official vote on how quickly the recommendations should be considered and implemented. "Right now, I'm more interested in making progress on the recommendations than getting bogged down in the process," he said.
NRC's expert panel is also conducting a long-term review, which could address the issue of whether spent fuel should be moved from wet pools to dry cask storage, the chairman said.
Senate Republicans took the opportunity to go after Jaczko, asking why and how he is using "emergency authority" in the wake of Japan's crisis that allows the chairman to transfer certain commission decisionmaking powers to himself. The chairman said he gave up that power months ago and provided situation reports to his colleagues multiple times (Greenwire, April 29).
Rep. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Jaczko is not fulfilling the requirements of the Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1980, which Congress passed to establish decisive leadership for dealing with nuclear emergencies. The plan calls on the chairman to provide a formal announcement when an emergency is declared and to issue a report when such an event has concluded. Members of NRC said they had received no such notification or final report.
But NRC's general counsel today said he believes Jaczko acted within his authority in declaring an emergency after the United States received tsunami warnings in the wake of the March 11 earthquake.