Boxer continues to throw punches at NRC as her retirement looms

By Hannah Northey | 04/16/2015 07:22 AM EDT

Sen. Barbara Boxer may not wield the Environment and Public Works Committee’s gavel any longer, but that’s not stopping the Californian from using her position as top Democrat to rail against nuclear regulators.

Sen. Barbara Boxer may not wield the Environment and Public Works Committee’s gavel any longer, but that’s not stopping the Californian from using her position as top Democrat to rail against nuclear regulators.

Boxer accused members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Public Affairs yesterday of circulating an internal memo last August that found Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s two-unit Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in San Luis Obispo County on the Pacific Coast to be "seismically safe."

That was weeks before PG&E submitted a study of nearby onshore and offshore faults near the plant to state regulators, Boxer said. The plant is located near several earthquake faults, within 50 miles of 500,000 people. The report found the plant’s design continues to be safe from earthquakes that can occur in the region.


"Heads should roll on this, you don’t provide talking points before you even get the documents," Boxer said at a hearing to review NRC’s 2016 fiscal budget request.

Republican NRC Commissioners Kristine Svinicki and William Ostendorff said they were unaware that had happened, and NRC Chairman Stephen Burns, a Democrat who Obama tapped in December to lead the agency, said it would have occurred before he took over.

"I will look into it," Burns said.

The controversy surrounding nuclear plants in California — a coastal state known for its staunch environmentalism and big earthquake faults — has been a central focus for Boxer for years. As EPW chairwoman and as ranking Democrat, the senator has accused the agency of being too cozy with industry and withholding documents related to the closure of the San Onofre plant in Southern California. Yesterday, she said the commission had a "horrible record" on implementing post-Fukushima safety upgrades (Greenwire, April 15).

Environmentalists from California say it’s a perfect swan song, as Boxer is retiring at the end of this Congress, ending her tenure on the Hill after more than 30 years.

"I believe one of the most important things she can do before leaving Congress is to provide oversight on this reactor and demand the NRC apply its rules," said Damon Moglen, senior strategic adviser on climate and energy programs for Friends of the Earth. "Honestly, there aren’t a lot of people focusing on the nuclear issues."

Boxer yesterday tied her concerns with the now-shuttered San Onofre plant to her new focus on Diablo Canyon.

"San Onofre had to shut down, it had to shut down, NRC didn’t do what it should have done there, and I’m very fearful we’re looking at the same thing in Diablo," she said.

Both of the San Onofre reactors — in the northwestern corner of San Diego County, south of San Clemente, Calif. — have been offline since January 2012, after a small leak of radioactive gas prompted the shutdown of one unit. The other was already offline. Unexpected wear was found in the plant’s steam generators, leading to an investigation and, ultimately, the plant’s closure.

The closure of San Onofre galvanized environmentalists focused on closing California’s reactors and has already triggered NRC investigations.

The NRC’s inspector general is investigating whether the commission made a mistake when it allowed PG&E to change earthquake safety standards at Diablo Canyon, located in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., without holding public hearings. Whether procedural errors occurred is the subject of a lawsuit from environmental groups trying to force the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant to close (Greenwire, March 26). A spokesman for PG&E said the company followed the NRC’s regulatory process and the agency’s directive.

The IG’s office is also looking into whether NRC and PG&E colluded to dismiss safety concerns by a former NRC inspector at Diablo Canyon, claims the NRC and PG&E have denied.

Moglen said Boxer’s leadership in the Senate will be sorely missed when it comes to nuclear issues, and he’s hopeful candidates running for her seat will prioritize Diablo Canyon. California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) is the only top-tier candidate to emerge thus far for Boxer’s seat.

"I think it’s going to be extremely interesting to see what these candidates say about Diablo Canyon," Moglen said, adding that Boxer has waded into an area that few lawmakers are focused on. "I’d like to think they all are going to be concerned … but it remains to be seen."