During a July 24 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee members of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy and the Subcommittee on Energy and Power discussed issues relating to the governance of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Discussions were focused on learning more about ongoing safety oversight and licensing activities at the NRC and “lessons learned from the consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan.” Members from both sides of the aisle wanted to hear from witnesses on issues including “decision-making relating to nuclear power reactor licensing and re-licensing” and the “need for collegiality and unrestricted information flow between senior NRC staff and Commissioners, and between the Chairman and Commissioners; [also the] importance of a strong safety culture within the NRC.”
Subcommittee Chairman John Shimkus (R-IL) was interested in examining the weaknesses in NRC governance and assessing the policy challenges facing the Agency. He expressed concern that the cumulative effect of regulation “can potentially distract licensee or entity staff from executing other primary duties that ensure safety or security.” He summarized his interest in risk reduction, stating that “risk is inherent to all sources of energy, yet energy is necessary to our health and well-being: to heat our homes, grow our food, and power our economy. With the Atomic Energy Act, Congress endeavors to balance the benefits nuclear energy brings to the general welfare with protection of public health and safety. Our goal as legislators and yours as regulators should be to preserve that balance.”
Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) stated, as did Members on both sides of the aisle, that the Commission “has been distracted from its responsibilities by politicians who second-guessed its decisions and sowed internal dissension,” referring to the turmoil under the previous Chairman of the NRC. There seemed to be bi-partisan agreement between Members that “it is time to move on.” Members also agreed on the importance of learning from the Japanese nuclear regulatory failures.
Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) wanted the witnesses to “ensure that any additional costs are justified by real safety benefits” and cited that the NRC Task Force found some actions after the accident at Three Mile Island that were “subjected to a structured review and were subsequently not found to be of substantial safety benefit.”
During her testimony, new NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane reassured Members that her “approach to management and to accomplishing work is to operate in a collaborative and collegial manner, always reaching out to others for input and ideas.” Commissioner Kristine Svinicki stated that MacFarlane had reached out to each of the other Commissioners and was working with them to accomplish their work. The other Commissioners also echoed these positive changes surrounding the newfound collegiate work environment at the NRC.
Regarding the issue of safety risk at nuclear plants, Macfarlane stated that “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 leads us to conclude that additional requirements should be imposed on licensees to increase the capability of nuclear power plants to mitigate beyond-design-basis extreme natural phenomena.”
Macfarlane also explained that an NRC Task Force prioritized NRC recommendations into three categories, or tiers, to define which actions are most critical and which can be initiated as soon as the critical actions have been completed. On March 9, the Commission authorized the NRC staff to issue three immediately effective Orders to US commercial nuclear reactors that could be implemented without delay:
- Licensees must develop, implement, and maintain guidance and strategies to maintain or restore core cooling, containment, and spent fuel pool cooling capabilities following a beyond-design-basis extreme natural event.
- Licensees with BWR Mark I and Mark II containments must have a reliable hardened vent to remove decay heat and maintain control of containment pressure within acceptable limits following events that result in the loss of active containment heat removal capability or prolonged station blackout.
- All operating reactors must have a reliable indication of the water level in spent fuel storage pools.
In addition to these three Orders issued on March 12, licensees were also issued a “request for information” that included:
- Licensees were asked to perform and provide the results of a reevaluation of the seismic and flooding hazards at their sites using current NRC requirements and guidance, and identify actions that are planned to address vulnerabilities. The results will determine whether additional regulatory actions are necessary (e.g., ordering plant modifications).
- Licensees were requested to develop a methodology and acceptance criteria and perform seismic and flooding walkdowns. We expect any performance deficiencies that are identified would be addressed by the site’s corrective action program. Licensees were asked to confirm that they will be using the walkdown procedures jointly developed by the NRC and industry or provide alternative, plant-specific procedures.
- Licensees were requested to assess the ability of their current communications to perform under conditions of onsite and offsite damage and prolonged loss of alternating current (AC) electrical power. Licensees also were requested to assess the plant staffing levels needed to respond to a large-scale natural event and to implement strategies contained in the emergency plan.
Macfarlane also discussed recent earthquakes and flooding with respect to the safety of US nuclear plants and stated that a Safety Culture Policy Statement was recently issued. She also addressed the outreach efforts at the NRC, stating that there have been more than one thousand public meetings across the country to address many NRC issues. Furthermore, she described how the Agency has been working to increase its effectiveness and efficiency.
Members questioned the witnesses in positive tones, expressing that they were pleased to hear about the collegiate governing taking place at the NRC. Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) expressed that “collegiality is not just a buzzword, it is a critical safeguard against ill-considered policy-making by any single Commission Member.”
During the questioning period, many members asked for assurance that Chairman Macfarlane would address pressing issues quickly and with a collegiate management style. Shimkus focused his questions on the shutting down of a Honeywell plant in his district. Other Members, including Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and Rep. John Barrow (D-GA), asked questions about the nuclear plants in their districts.
Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) inquired about the differences between US and Japanese emergency preparedness to which the panelists replied that the US has regulatory emergency preparedness measures in place that were lacking in Japan before the Fukushima incident. Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) wanted to know what legislative changes the panelists would recommend that could be included in potential legislation on the issue of reforming the NRC.