A Senate oversight hearing on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reaction to the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan was suspended shortly after it began Nov. 21 – just as things started to get lively.
Due to conflicts on the Senate floor, the Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing had to be suspended within about 20 minutes after it started. That was long enough, however, for both Democrats and Republicans to voice their displeasure with NRC over different issues.
Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) opened the Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing by accusing the five NRC commissioners of foot-dragging on Fukushima measures and also of erecting hurdles to hinder disclosure of key documents.
Boxer also blasted the five NRC members for racking up “100 days of foreign travel” since 2010. It’s hard to carry out proper oversight when the NRC commissioners are out of the country, Boxer said.
NRC officials sometimes travel internationally to collaborate with nuclear officials in other countries.
The California Democrat also said NRC was moving slowing in implementing post-Fukushima changes designed to minimize the chance of “severe” accidents that could be trigged by earthquakes or flooding.
“There are problems with the pace of implementation,” Boxer said. “Earthquakes do not wait” on NRC, Boxer added.
The committee chair seemed particularly angry about what she described as a more restrictive policy on releasing key NRC documents. The NRC “is not independent from congressional oversight,” Boxer said.
Boxer also wrote a letter to NRC Nov. 21 demanding the releasing of certain documents that have yet to be made available to the Senate panel.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) had his own complaints about NRC.
Inhofe said that over the years, NRC has asked for funding for “a bigger building” and dramatically increased its staff size over time. Yet, NRC has only approved one new reactor design certification, Inhofe said.
U.S. nuclear plants are also being required to make costly changes to their facilities after Fukushima although studies show the chances of a similar accident (which was trigged by a large earthquake and tsunami) in the U.S. is very remote, Inhofe said.
“We are spending an awful lot of time imposing new regulations on industry,” with uncertain benefit, Inhofe said.
Sen. David Vitter (D-La.) did credit NRC for moving to restart Yucca Mountain license proceeding in connection with a court order. “It’s a step in the right direction” although the case should have never been halted in the first place, Vitter said.
Vitter voiced concern about closure of a few nuclear plants, saying the moves result in a large number of layoffs, higher energy prices and an increase in CO2 emissions.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) praised NRC for maintaining “24/7” oversight of the nation’s roughly 100 nuclear units during the October government shutdown. Carper chairs the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.
The subcommittee and full committee were starting a joint hearing to discuss NRC progress on implementing recommendations of the Fukushima short-term task force. But the hearing was suspended early on.
The hearing was suspended before any of the commissioners – Chairman Allison M. Macfarlane; Kristine L. Svinicki; George Apostolakis; William D. Magwood; and William C. Ostendorff – got to testify.
The postponed hearing will be rescheduled. The Senate calendar was dominated by a vote by Senate Democrats to change Senate rules. The Environment and Public Works Committee said only that the NRC hearing would be rescheduled “as soon as possible.”