Thursday, September 13, 2012

Senate Hearing On Enhancing Nuclear Reactor Safety

Sep 12: The Full Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and its Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety held a joint hearing entitled, "Oversight Hearing: NRC's Implementation of Recommendations for Enhancing Nuclear Reactor Safety in the 21st Century." Witnesses included the newly appointed Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Allison Macfarlane and the remaining four Commissioners. Full Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) both issued opening statements.
    Senator Boxer recounted some of the Committee and issue history saying it was the seventh oversight meeting on the NRC since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan in March 2011. She said, "The consequences of the terrible events in Japan have prompted us to rethink how to ensure safety at the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States. Last year, the NRC created a Task Force to review our nation's safety requirements, and that Task Force made 12 recommendations to help prevent a similar disaster at nuclear facilities in the U.S.

    "Earlier this year, the NRC sent three orders to nuclear plants requiring high-priority safety improvements: the acquisition and protection of emergency equipment, better monitoring of spent fuel pools, and improved venting at boiling water reactors to help maintain containment in the case of an emergency. The NRC also directed nuclear plants to take other actions, including reanalyzing earthquake and flooding risks and reassessing their ability to safely operate following such events. In addition, the Commission issued two notices of proposed rulemaking: one concerning steps that plants should take if they lose electric power, and the other on ways to improve nuclear plants' emergency procedures.

    "While on the one hand I am encouraged that the NRC has begun moving forward, I also have concerns that the Commission is allowing some nuclear plants to delay implementing safety improvements beyond the recommended five-year period. Public safety of nuclear facilities must be the NRC's top priority, and I call on this Commission to ensure that the recommended improvements are put in place within the next five years. I intend to continue this Committee's oversight to make certain that these safety upgrades are completed without delay. . ."
    Ranking Member Inhofe said in part, "Ensuring the safe use of nuclear energy is a very serious job. That is why, unlike many other countries, Congress established the NRC, an independent commission, and charged five commissioners with the responsibility to protect public health and safety. We saw what happened at Fukushima and we are all committed to ensuring that a United States nuclear power plant will not experience a similar accident. That is why we have safeguards in place that would have prevented such a disaster here in the United States. For instance, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (formed by the Japanese government) reported that the Japanese plants are not required to consider a possible station blackout scenario - something the NRC instituted in the 1980's. This report concluded that 'the accident may have been preventable' if an order already required by the NRC following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. was instituted by the Japanese.
    "No one, on either side of the aisle, in Congress is willing to accept anything other than the safe operation and regulatory compliance of the country's commercial nuclear power plants. Throughout the NRC's history, we have applied lessons learned from nuclear and non-nuclear events. At the same time, the NRC has the vital responsibility to determine the cumulative effects that its regulations actually have on safety. It is important that regulations provide significant, tangible, and necessary safety benefits that warrant the costs - costs that are ultimately born by consumers.
    "To all of the Commissioners, and the new Chairman, I am pleased to see that debates and the free flow of information seem healthy and respectful again. Combined, your actions are critical to ensure the safe operation of the nuclear power plants across this country. The nation is also counting on you to prevent the imposition of an unpredictable or unnecessary regulatory burden that undermines nuclear energy economically, and avoid the way EPA regulations are driving the premature shutdown of coal-fired power plants. . ."
    Commissioner Macfarlane delivered an 8-page statement on behalf of the entire NRC and said in part regarding the implementation of safety enhancements based on the review of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident that, "With everything that we have assessed to date, the Commission continues to believe that there is no imminent risk from continued operation of existing U.S. nuclear power plants. At the same time, the NRC's assessment of insights from the events at Fukushima Dai-ichi led us to conclude that additional requirements should be imposed on licensees to increase the capability of nuclear power plants to mitigate the effects of beyond-design-basis extreme natural phenomena.

    "The Commission has approved the staff's prioritization of the recommendations of the Near-Term Task Force ("Task Force") into three categories, or tiers. Tier 1 consists of actions to be taken without delay, and these actions are underway. Tier 2 is the next set of actions that can be initiated as soon as staff resources become available and pertinent information is gathered and analyzed. Tier 3 recommendations require that the staff conduct further study or undertake shorter-term actions first."

    She also commented on the recent Waste Confidence ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit which found that the NRC had violated the National Environmental Policy Act in issuing its 2010 update to the Waste Confidence Decision and accompanying Temporary Storage Rule [See WIMS 6/8/12]. The court vacated both the Decision and the Rule, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the court's opinion. She said, "On August 7, 2012, the Commission issued an Order, in response to petitions we received following the court's decision, stating that we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court's remand is appropriately addressed. This determination extends just to final license issuance; all licensing reviews by NRC staff and proceedings will continue to move forward. On September 6, 2012, the Commission directed the NRC staff to develop, within the next 24 months, an environmental impact statement, a revised waste confidence decision, and a rule on the temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel. As we assured petitioners in the Order, and in our direction to the NRC staff, the public will be afforded opportunities to comment on these actions. . ."
    Access the hearing website and link to all statements, testimony and a webcast (click here). [#Haz/Nuclear, #Energy/Nuclear]
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