House Energy and Commerce Committee Examines Nuclear Regulatory Commission Governance

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Publication date: 
24 August 2012
Number: 
111

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.