NRC chief calls for fast-tracking safety overhaul of nation's nuclear system

The country's top nuclear power regulator called on his colleagues Monday to act quickly to review and implement a series of sweeping safety recommendations outlined in a federal report.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, in a speech Monday at the National Press Club, pressed his fellow commissioners to make decisions on the recommendations in the report within the next three months and to impose any regulatory changes over the next five years.

“We are in a strong position today to be able to move forward quickly and effectively because the task force did an outstanding job with a tremendously challenging responsibility,” Jaczko said.

The timetable represents an effort to fast-track the commission’s decision-making process, which has traditionally been slow and deliberate, in light of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. President Obama called for a review of U.S. nuclear power plants in the wake of the disaster, and some in Congress and elsewhere raised concerns about the vulnerability of reactors to tsunamis or earthquakes.

The task force’s report calls on the commission to make wide-ranging improvements to NRC’s “existing patchwork of regulatory requirements and other safety initiatives,” while also stressing that there is no “imminent threat” at U.S. plants.

Jaczko first outlined the timetable for reviewing the report in an exclusive interview with The Hill last week.

“We have the responsibility to the American people to diligently and expeditiously review these recommendations and make the best decisions to ensure the continued safety of the public,” Jaczko said in the speech Monday.

The NRC must move forward more quickly with any overhaul of the country’s nuclear safety rules than it did following Sept. 11, when the commission instituted a suite of new regulations intended to protect against terrorist attacks, Jaczko said.

“Nearly a decade ago, we embarked on an effort to overhaul and strengthen the nation’s nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks,” Jaczko said. “While we moved forward with the short-term changes, it has taken the NRC and the industry almost 10 years to fully develop and implement the new framework. I believe that would be unacceptable for our current effort to take that long.”

Jaczko outlined a “road map” to his colleagues on moving forward with a potential overhaul of U.S. nuclear safety regulations that includes a series of public meetings with NRC staff and stakeholder groups, he said.

“We all know that some changes are in order and none of us want to make rush and poor decisions,” Jaczko said. “We must move forward however with the urgency called for by these safety issues.”

The nuclear industry has raised concerns about the task force’s recommendations.

In a letter to Jaczko Friday, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s national trade group, said the 90-day report lack “rigorous analysis,” arguing that the report did not include detailed data on the Japanese disaster.

The industry group also criticized the tone of the report.

“The industry is concerned that the task force’s use of phrases such as ‘patchwork of regulatory requirements’ undermines the comprehensive body of regulatory requirements imposed by the NRC, the agency’s extensive inspection and oversight process, and the excellent safety performance at the industry’s 104 reactors,” the letter says.

Jaczko defended the task force Monday.

“They took a look at this from a big-picture perspective and realized there may be a better organizing principle now for the changes that we’ve made over the years,” he said.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee cautioned Jaczko that the commission must conduct a “full and deliberate” review of the task force’s recommendations based on NRC’s standard procedures.

“This review process includes thorough evaluation of the Task Force analyses and recommendations by NRC technical and senior staff. It would also include the involvement and perspective of industry and other stakeholders, and the [Advisory Committee on Nuclear Reactor Safeguards],” the Republicans said in the letter. “Such a process ensures the Commission has the full information necessary to evaluate the Task Force recommendations and to make effective policy decisions.”