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

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Publication date: 
16 November 2012

“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.”