NRC Chairman Jaczko discusses nuclear facility safety

In light of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, questions are being raised about the safety of other energy production in the United States. Can nuclear facilities guarantee safety? Is an accident on the scale of the BP spill possible at a nuclear power plant? During today's OnPoint, Greg Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, discusses safety oversight of nuclear facilities in the United States. He also comments on the Obama administration's recent move to end funding for Yucca Mountain.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Greg Jaczko, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Chairman Jaczko, thanks for coming on the show.

Gregory Jaczko: Well, thank you for having me, Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Mr. Chairman, many safety questions are being raised in light of the recent oil spill in the Gulf and the explosion at the Massey coal mine in West Virginia. In terms of safety, how are these two incidents impacting the NRC and is this a good time for the nuclear industry to take a second look at their safety procedures?

Gregory Jaczko: Well, Monica, I think in the nuclear industry we have a very good safety program in place. We put a lot of emphasis on the safety culture so that the people who are operating and working at these plants put a prime focus on safety and we make sure that we have good defense in depth, so that if there's a problem in one area we have lots and lots of layers of protection to ensure that in the end there's no real impacts to public health and safety. So, I think it's a very good and robust program, but we're always looking for lessons. We're always looking to make it better and, certainly, I think we'll take a look at some of the things that happened in these other industries to see if there are any lessons we can learn, but right now I feel very good that we have a good, strong program in place.

Monica Trauzzi: In the case at the oil spill, for example, there were procedures in place that all seem to have failed. Are you at all concerned that that might end up being the case for your industry?

Gregory Jaczko: Well, something that we look at very closely in the nuclear industry is procedures and how the licensees who operate the nuclear power plants or the other facilities that we regulate, how they follow their procedures and it's something that we actually inspect and is really a very, very important piece of our program. So it's something that, again, I think we feel confident that they are working to make sure that they follow their procedures, that their procedures are right too and that they deal with a safety issue in the right kind of way. So, that's a constant and it's an involving process and something that we never stop looking at.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what then is the probability of an accident on the scale of what we see down in the Gulf at a nuclear facility?

Gregory Jaczko: It's very unlikely that you would see the kind of accident in a nuclear power plant that would lead to any kind of off-site consequences. Realistically, the numbers come out to something like once every 10,000 years or something like that that you would even have an incident, but not even at that point would you have any kind of release to the public or any real threat to the public health and safety. So, it's an industry we oversee very, very carefully and the people who work at the NRC come to work every day to make sure that we maintain that high level of safety throughout the industry.

Monica Trauzzi: Do these incidents help build a stronger case for expanding the use of nuclear in the U.S.?

Gregory Jaczko: Well, I think I worry most about just keeping the existing plants and the existing facilities operating safely and securely. I think there are lots of others who have interest in whether or not we need more nuclear power or less nuclear power and I let them worry about those debates and keep my focus and the agency's focus on the safety and security of the plants that we have right now.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you believe that you're making strides at overcoming many of the concerns that the public has had over the last few decades and how important is that public perception as you move forward?

Gregory Jaczko: Well, I think public confidence and public involvement is extremely important for us to do our job well and, ultimately, for the public to have a good understanding and a good acceptance for what we do. So, one of the things that I've tried to focus on as chairman is really enhancing our communication, enhancing our outreach, going into communities, listening to their concerns and trying to talk to them about what we do to address those concerns and how we think the plant is operating, how we think a facility is operating to, where we can, alleviate their concerns or talk to them and communicate with them better.

Monica Trauzzi: You'll likely never be able to guarantee 100 percent safety for these technologies though, so is even a minute risk too much of a risk to move forward?

Gregory Jaczko: Well, the focus, as I said, Monica, for our program is this idea of defense in depth so that if there were ever in incidence at a nuclear power plant we then have very strong programs in place to ensure that the public would be evacuated, that the public would take the right kinds of emergency actions to ensure that, in the end, there's no real impact to public health and safety. But, of course, it is not something that is a complete guarantee, so that's why we have all these different layers, because if one system fails we want to know that there's another and if that one fails we want to know that there's another and, ultimately, if all of those systems were to fail we want to have good, solid programs in place to ensure that the public is protected and that's the approach we use.

Monica Trauzzi: So, do changes need to be made to the oversight process for nuclear power plants?

Gregory Jaczko: We're always looking at the oversight process and how it can be made better. Every year the commission has a meeting with our staff where we talk about our oversight process and we look to see how we can make it better. That's a never ending process and it's one of the hallmarks of the NRC. We're an agency that always looks to make ourselves better and then ultimately to make the plants that we regulate safer and more secure.

Monica Trauzzi: The Obama administration recently decided to end funding for Yucca Mountain. Did the administration undercut the NRC's work with this decision?

Gregory Jaczko: Well, our role and our responsibility with regard to Yucca Mountain is to review a license application and, in many cases, we have licensees who present applications to us and we begin those reviews and those applicants change their mind about what they want to do. So, right now our focus is on doing that review and completing some of the legal questions that we have in front of us and we'll resolve those, I think, in a timely manner.

Monica Trauzzi: So, the bottom-line question is can spent fuel be stored safely? Do you believe that it can?

Gregory Jaczko: Certainly, not only can it be stored safely, it is being stored safely. We have spent fuel that's been stored for decades in this country and, I think, the agency right now knows that we can do that for at least 100 years. And one of the things that we have started looking at is, well, what might be the kinds of challenges that we would deal with beyond that 100 years and how can we go about putting in place now the programs to make sure that after 100 years or so it continues to be stored safely and securely.

Monica Trauzzi: One of the issues as the Senate takes up a climate and energy or energy only package in the coming weeks is nuclear's role in all of this. Do you believe that nuclear should qualify as a renewable energy in a renewable energy standard?

Gregory Jaczko: Well, as I said, my focus is on making sure those 104 plants are safe and secure, so some of those questions about whether nuclear should be a renewable I leave to the experts who deal more with the broader energy policy issues than we do at the agency.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we're going to end it there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Gregory Jaczko: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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