Senate Democrats call for broad review of nation's nuclear reactors

Senate Democrats on Wednesday called for a broad review of the nation's nuclear reactors after the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) offered an assessment of the evolving nuclear crisis in Japan. 

Gregory Jaczko, the head of the commission, came under tough questioning from lawmakers, many of whom have nuclear plants in their states and are worried that what is happening in Japan could happen in their backyards. 

“We’ve got an inferno in front of us and we have to make sure that we do whatever we can to stop it,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

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He and other panel members accused Jaczko of not doing everything he could to ensure that U.S. nuclear reactors can withstand major natural disasters.

Jaczko said the NRC would "take action" to address issues in the U.S. if a review of what is happening in Japan yields new information. 

“We want to get good facts and make good, credible, reliable decisions, and that may take a bit of time,” Jaczko said.

Jaczko testified as the situation in Japan appeared to take a turn for the worse. The White House advised Americans to stay at least 50 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, where workers have struggled to prevent a complete meltdown. Japan has advised people to stay only 12 miles away from the power station.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the panel's chairwoman, was among those calling for a review. “I don’t hear anything proactive, and I worry about that,” said Boxer, who argued that the NRC is “doing nothing” to assess U.S. reactor safety.

She said the NRC needs to act immediately to conduct a review of the safety of U.S. reactors.

But Jaczko countered that the NRC is indeed taking proactive measures.

“We are going to be looking very seriously at what happened in Japan, and if we get any information that says there’s a safety issue, we’ll take action,” Jaczko said. “We are not doing nothing.”

Boxer called on the NRC to begin reviewing all nuclear reactors in earthquake-prone areas.

She raised concerns that reactors might not be prepared for an earthquake of historic proportions, noting that the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station plant were prepared to deal with a magnitude-7.9 quake. Last week’s temblor registered a 9.0. 

“I don’t have the answer on how many plants are near earthquakes, but the fact that there’s any disturbs me and the fact that a tsunami could come without warning worries me,” she said.

Jaczko stressed that the NRC requires all nuclear facilities to show that they can withstand earthquakes beyond those expected in the region.

He also said the NRC took a series of steps after 9/11 to ensure that U.S. reactors are prepared for a terrorist attack. Those procedures, which require reactors to be able to cool the reactor core in the event of a loss of power, would apply to a major natural disaster, he said.

The Obama administration, along with many pro-nuclear lawmakers, has stood by its support for nuclear power despite the disaster in Japan.

Nuclear industry officials, who have blanketed Washington in the days since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, have cautioned lawmakers against condemning nuclear power in light of the crisis, advocating a go-slow approach.

Many Democrats, in contrast, are saying the nation should rethink nuclear power. They argued on Wednesday that lawmakers need to be able to reassure their constituents that nuclear energy is safe and said they cannot do that right now given the crisis in Japan. 

“We also have a responsibility to our constituents,” Boxer said. “I can’t really look them in the eye and say never.”

Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Jaczko on Wednesday calling for an “immediate inspection” of two nuclear power plants in the state.

Lautenberg said Wednesday that it may be necessary to shut down certain reactors in order to conduct adequate safety inspections.

“This fire alarm has now gone off, and it’s screeching for help,” Lautenberg said.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) echoed Lautenberg’s concerns.

“Everything I do I know I can do better. The same is true for the nuclear power industry,” Carper said.

The disaster in Japan could be an “opportunity to look at every one of our 104 facilities, starting with the ones that would be most at risk if we had a tsunami,” he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pressed Jaczko on whether the NRC would relicense nuclear power plants that have similar designs to those facing a meltdown in Japan.

“I don’t want to speculate right now about whether we’d license any particular design,” Jaczko said. “We don’t have detailed information about what caused the problem in Japan.”