Senator criticizes Jaczko on Vogtle vote, NRC actions

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., urged the Obama administration on March 15 to renominate Kristine Svinicki to another term on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Inhofe also used a Senate hearing to revive his criticism of Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

“The public is best served by a commission that functions collectively and collegially to pool their expertise,” Inhofe said during an opening statement on a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing into lessons learned from Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

Inhofe was not the only senator to voice support for another term for Svinicki, who joined the commission in March 2008. A nuclear engineer and policy advisor who spent a decade as a Senate staffer, she has worked for GOP members of the Armed Services Committee. Svinicki’s current NRC term expires June 30.

“That is why I’m anxious to see progress on the renomination of Commissioner Svinicki, which I hope President Obama sends us soon. She is due for renomination in June, and given the scope of issues before the Commission, it is important that the agency continues to benefit from her valuable expertise,” Inhofe said. The hearing was held by the committee’s Clean Air and Nuclear Safety subcommittee.

During his statement Inhofe also criticized Jaczko both for his management of the commission and for the NRC chairman being the only member of the five-member panel to vote against a license for two nuclear reactors being developed by a group led by a Southern Co. (NYSE:SO) subsidiary.

The two new units planned at the Vogtle nuclear complex in Georgia are the first new reactors licensed by the NRC in 34 years.

Said Inhofe: “The Chairman split with his fellow commissioners and opposed the license saying: ‘I can’t support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened. But without this license condition, in my view, that is what we are doing.’”

But only one month later, the NRC voted for the new Vogtle units under the same Fukushima-inspired rules that will be applied to the rest of the U.S. nuclear fleet. “There was no need for Chairman Jaczko to take his ‘my way or the highway’ approach here, lashing out at his colleagues and implying that they were ignoring the lessons of Fukushima,” Inhofe said.

“As NRC Chairman, he takes every opportunity to portray himself as the sole commissioner most dedicated to public safety while condemning his colleagues and doing his utmost to hinder and delay licensing actions,” Inhofe said.

Inhofe reminded Jaczko of Senate testimony in December in which the NRC chairman was accused of trying to intimidate NRC staff members. Jaczko again said that he has never intentionally tried to bully NRC staff members.

Carper: NRC still gets job done despite ‘frayed’ relationships

Meanwhile, Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., said the apparent acrimony atop NRC has not stopped the organization from approving an updated reactor design for new units such as Vogtle 3 and 4 and also passing measures to prevent a Fukushima-style disaster in the United States.

“Since we last heard from the Commissioners in December, I have been encouraged to see that they are still able to get things done despite the differences that were clearly in evidence in this room three months ago,” Carper said in a statement.

The recent NRC actions “suggest – at least to me – that while interpersonal relationships among Commissioners frayed badly last year, the Commission still remains a functioning body,” Carper said. At the same time, Carper said the five commission members “should continue to work every day to further improve cooperation and collegiality among the commission members, while we attempt to do the same thing here in the Senate.”

There was a meltdown accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex after a historic March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. While the station evidently withstood the earthquake, the resulting tsunami waves were so high that they flooded emergency backup generators located on the low-lying grounds of the coastal nuclear plant.

The accident essentially ruined Tokyo Electric Power’s multi-billion-dollar facility and caused evacuation of residents near the nuclear plant.

During questioning, various NRC commissioners said nobody actually died from direct radiological aspects of the accidents. Two people drowned in the tsunami wave at the plant. Also, two workers, who worked prolonged emergency shifts clad in heavy protective clothing, experienced fatal heart attacks.

“Even though the NRC concluded that an accident like Fukushima is unlikely to happen in the United States and that we have some of the safest nuclear power plants in the world, I’m still convinced that we can learn from the Fukushima accident,” Carper said.

In his testimony, Jaczko reiterated that the NRC continues to believe there is no imminent risk from continued operation of domestic nuclear power plants. At the same time, NRC’s study of Fukushima has caused the organization to place more emphasis on potential worst-case scenarios.

In February NRC staff provided the commission with draft orders for initial post-Fukushima safeguards.

Plant operators must draft strategies to restore core cooling, containment and spent fuel cooling capability in the event of a “beyond-design basis extreme natural event,” Jaczko said.

Also Mark 1 and Mark 2 boiling water reactor plants “must have a reliable hardened vent” to remove decay heat and maintain containment pressure following an extreme accident that results in a prolonged station blackout, he said. Finally, all operating reactors must have a reliable indication of the water level in their spent fuel pools following severe accidents.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.