Senator warns Calif. nuke disaster could be worse than Chernobyl

A visibly irate Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerFour more lawmakers say they’ve been sexually harassed by colleagues in Congress California Hispanics are the vanguard for a new political paradigm Trump riles Dems with pick for powerful EPA job MORE (D-Calif.) blasted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Wednesday for not doing enough to protect the country from a nuclear disaster similar to Fukushima or Chernobyl.

“It's been more than three years since the Fukushima disaster and Japan is still struggling to clean up the site,” Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said during a hearing.

“We must learn from the tragic events in Fukushima and take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities in the United States,” she said.

Boxer focused her criticism on NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane, but also had harsh words for the agency's other four commissioners, all of whom testified at the hearing. She accused the NRC of granting exemptions to safety rules to every nuclear facility that has requested one, which she said puts the nation at risk of a nuclear disaster.

Boxer expressed particular concern about the state of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in her home state, which closed last year because of safety problems and is in the process of being decommissioned.

“This isn't just any plant,” Boxer said. “This is a nuclear plant that sits in an earthquake zone, a tsunami zone, and a fire came within half a mile.”

The senators debated whether the NRC should relax the rules at San Onofre, which is no longer in operation. Sen. David VitterDavid VitterYou're fired! Why it's time to ditch the Fed's community banker seat Overnight Energy: Trump set to propose sharp cuts to EPA, energy spending Former La. official tapped as lead offshore drilling regulator MORE (R-La.) said it's "reasonable" to take into account the changes at the plant.

“Now, I'm not suggesting that a plant that has been shut down you can just walk away from it, I'm not suggesting that,” said Vitter, the ranking Republican on the committee. “But it does seem reasonable that there is a significant difference between a nuclear plant that is operating and a nuclear plant that is shut down.”

But Boxer pointed to a 2003 report Macfarlane wrote, which suggested that the consequences of a disaster at San Onofre could be “significantly worse” than what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in Ukraine in 1986, which is arguably the worst nuclear disaster in history.

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeMcCain backs Pentagon nominee despite concerns over defense industry ties GOP senators ask Trump for meeting on biofuels mandate Trump feuds endangering tax reform MORE (R-Okla.) questioned the likelihood of such a disaster occurring at San Onofre.

“It's less than the likelihood the earth will be struck by a civilization threatening meteor,” Inhofe said.

Vitter accused Boxer of using “semantics to confuse and scare the public,” in an effort to put the nuclear industry out of business.

“While the president's efforts to kill coal fire generation are obvious and already underway, I'm really concerned about another and somewhat more subversive and undercover effort to really cripple the nuclear industry, which is on-going,” Vitter said.

“I'm concerned that some Senate Democrats are using these hearings to provide cover for efforts quite frankly to kill nuclear generation,” he added.

Boxer repeatedly asked Macfarlane and the other NRC board members about whether they planned to grant San Onofre an exemption to certain safety rules.

But Macfarlane would not answer the questions directly, which angered Boxer.

“We will not eliminate emergency preparedness,” Macfarlane said. “Sometimes it's reduced in scope after we consider their request.”