NRC members signal some agreement on evaluating task force report

The 90-day staff report, released last month, calls on the commission to make sweeping 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. President Obama launched the review in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

While the NRC members’ comments Tuesday highlight the disagreement on the commission regarding the path forward for reviewing the task force’s recommendations, the commissioners indicated that there is consensus about the need to reevaluate some regulations quickly in light of the Japanese disaster.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has called on his fellow commissioners to move forward quickly on the task force’s recommendations, outlining a plan to make decisions on the report’s findings within three months and implement the changes over the next five years — a speedy schedule for an agency known for its slow decision-making process.

Commissioner George Apostolakis agreed with Jaczko at the hearing that the NRC should be able to make decisions on the recommendations in 90 days. But Magwood, William Ostendorff and Kristine Svinicki all signaled they have reservations about the timeframe.

Ostendorff identified six task-force recommendations that can be addressed immediately, including proposals to reevaluate seismic and flooding hazards at nuclear power plants and to review severe accident management guidelines. Other recommendations, Ostendorff said, would take longer for the NRC to consider.

“We all want to move forward quickly and I don’t think we’re as far apart as maybe some of the questioning might have suggested,” he said.

Magwood echoed Ostendorff’s view, noting that there are “clear examples” of recommendations that can be moved on “very quickly.”

“I have absolutely no sense that there’s anyone on the commission that wants to delay this unnecessarily,” he said.

Svinicki said the task force’s recommendation’s “vary in complexity,” and called for additional review of the recommendations by senior NRC staff before the commission makes any final decisions.

The additional analysis should not take “an excessive amount of time,” she said, adding, “I believe it’s possible to strike the appropriate balance between urgency and moving forward and also being thoughtful and getting it right.”

All of the commissioners called for a broad public and stakeholder review process. Jaczko’s framework for considering the task force recommendations includes a slew of public meetings.

Tuesday’s hearing also underscored deep divides between Republicans and Democrats on the task force's report.

“I don’t believe that an accident in a country with different regulatory systems and practices means that ours are broken,” Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the panel, said at the hearing. “I think the NRC must take the time to learn, not just the technical lessons from Fukushima, but also the regulatory and policy lessons.”

But committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called on the commission to move forward quickly, raising concerns about the possibility of a nuclear accident in the United States.

“The Japanese were not prepared for the disaster that hit them on March 11,” Boxer said. “That is the lesson learned from Fukushima. We cannot afford to make the same mistake. We should make improvements that will enhance safety and preparedness for unforeseen disasters.”

“Any stalling will not be viewed favorably by the American people. I can assure you that their confidence in nuclear power is waning.”