Senators air nuclear grievances at NRC confirmation hearing

Senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee used a hearing Tuesday on two nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to air their concerns with how the commission works.

The complaints ranged from how the commission has changed its role after the 2010 nuclear reactor disaster in Japan to allegations that the agency is overfunded and what documents it can give to the Senate.

President Obama nominated Jeffrey Baran and Stephen Burns in July to fill empty seats on the commission. Baran works for the House Energy and Commerce Committee on issues including nuclear power and Burns was an NRC attorney for three decades.

The senators sought mostly to make their objections about the NRC known, though they at times asked Baran and Burns whether they agreed.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the panel’s former chairman, said that under his watch, the NRC’s budget has increased by about 30 percent, due to an expectation that its workload would increase. But it never approved the major applications that were filed.

“A legitimate review of the agency’s staff levels and current workloads needs to be examined by the commission ... and cuts need to be made if current staff levels cannot be justified when compared to the mission and needs of the NRC then versus now,” Inhofe said.

He added that the result of overstaffing at the agency has been overregulation of the nuclear power sector, because employees don’t have enough work to do.

“Many of these new regulations have been in response to the Fukushima disaster in Japan, and while each rule by itself may not be considered costly, when added to the many other orders and regulations being considered, the cumulative costs skyrocket,” he said.

Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerTrump riles Dems with pick for powerful EPA job Pelosi's chief of staff stepping down Time is now to address infrastructure needs MORE (D-Calif.), the committee’s chairwoman, criticized the NRC for its handling of California’s only remaining nuclear plant and another that was recently decommissioned.

The operating plant, Boxer said, does not conform with the NRC’s decisions about its safety requirements.

Baran and Burns both agreed in principle that plants should follow the NRC’s rules, though they did not comment on the specifics of California’s plants.

“I think it's important, because NRC makes the decision, and I think they should enforce it,” Boxer said.

Sen. Edward MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDems lambaste Trump’s ‘outrageous’ EPA chemical safety pick Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada Dem senator pitches ideas for gun control after shooting MORE (D-Mass.) said the NRC has refused to give him non-public documents he has requested, despite a 2011 law that requires such disclosures.

“But the agency is still refusing to comply with this law, and it won’t respond to many of my information requests about serious safety and security matters,” he said.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoDems lambaste Trump’s ‘outrageous’ EPA chemical safety pick Overnight Regulation: EPA misses smog rule deadline | Search is on for new HHS chief | ACLU sues over abortion pill restrictions | Justices weigh gerrymandering Price resignation sets off frenzy of speculation over replacement MORE (R-Wyo.) criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Republicans are headed for a disappointing end to their year in power Obama's HHS secretary could testify in Menendez trial MORE (D-Nev.) over reports that Reid can effectively veto nominees for the NRC.

“We do need to maintain a full, qualified slate of commissioners who continue to protect our communities by ensuring nuclear safety,” he said. “This is best achieved by having experienced commissioners who aren’t removed and called names on the Senate floor because they don’t share the majority leader’s narrow political agenda.”

In their own statements, Baran and Burns both committed to being open-minded and committing to NRC’s priorities of safely and effectively regulating the industry.

Boxer said she wants to move forward with the nominations quickly, and will schedule a meeting Thursday to vote.