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Congeniality and Collaboration: Senate Hearing on New Leadership at the NRC

Richard M. Jones
Number 137 - November 16, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“I am so pleased to see the working relationship that is beginning to develop here,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) at an oversight hearing on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  Boxer’s remarks came at the conclusion of a two-hour joint hearing of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, which she chairs, and its Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.

Appearing before Boxer and her colleagues were the five Commissioners of the NRC.  It was the first time that Chairman Allison Macfarlane testified before the committee since her June confirmation hearing.  Macfarlane replaced retiring chairman Gregory Jaczko.  Jaczko’s tenure on the commission was controversial because of his management style and actions on several matters, most notably the termination of the review of the Yucca Mountain repository application.

The tone of this September 12 hearing contrasted with that of her June joint confirmation hearing.  During that hearing senators markedly differed in their assessment of Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, who was nominated for a second term.  This latest hearing, entitled “NRC’s Implementation of Recommendations for Enhancing Nuclear Reactor Safety in the 21st Century” was much more conciliatory in the tone and wording of the exchanges between the senators, and the senators and the five commissioners.

Boxer took the lead in asking many of the questions, revealing general agreement between the commissioners on their approach to dealing with a range of issues before the NRC.  Many questions focused on the NRC’s implementation of safety enhancements recommended in the NRC July 2011 Near-Term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Accident.    These twelve recommendations have been placed in three categories for implementation over a suggested five years.  Tier 1 recommendations center on the ability of a nuclear plant to manage a beyond-design-basis extreme natural event, the removal of decay heat and pressure control for two types of containments following an event such as a prolonged station blackout, and reliable indicators of the water level in spent fuel pools.  Utilities are to submit implementation plans to the commission by the end of February, and to make necessary modifications by the end of 2016. 

Senators wanted to know if utilities would be able to meet what one commissioner characterized as this “very aggressive” schedule.  They were assured that the NRC has the resources to assure compliance, and will monitor the utilities closely.  Senators also asked about the schedule for the implementation of the remaining recommendations and the impact that this compliance might have on the commission’s other activities.  Other questions centered on the commission’s review of Small Modular Reactors, and the effect of  a court decision relating to the disposal of nuclear waste.   Boxer asked many questions about the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente CA that has been shut down for most of the year by unexpected degradation in the tubes of two steam generators. 

A central theme in the opening remarks of the senators, the testimony from the five commissioners, the questions and answers, and the closing remarks were the working relationships between the commissioners, and the commissioners and the NRC staff.  Macfarlane testified about her desire to maintain “a continued collegial relationship” with each of the commissioners, stressing “openness, efficiency and transparency.”  “An agency endowed with the public trust such as the NRC requires a respectful working environment to assure its integrity” she said.   Macfarlane praised the staff, saying “The NRC staff has done an outstanding job of not only making good progress on lessons-learned from Japan, but also on continuing to ensure the safe and secure operation of all our existing licensed facilities.”  She also told the senators that “One of my goals as Chairman is to promote better communication with the public.  An independent regulator like the NRC cannot ensure public trust and instill public confidence unless we communicate well.”

The remarks of Macfarlane’s fellow commissioners were positive, reporting to the senators that “the environment is great” and “things are very normal.”  The senators were pleased with the new working environment at the NRC, with committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) saying “I am pleased to see that debates and the free flow of information seem healthy and respectful again.”  As Boxer ended the hearing she told the commissioners “I’m really happy to see the cooperation and respect,” acknowledging that there will be differences between the commissioners.  She gaveled the hearing to its conclusion, and then could be overheard telling her staff “that was a great hearing.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics