Boxer slams nuke regulator's ‘intimidation'

The chairman of a key Senate panel on Thursday lambasted members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, arguing that the agency’s new information-sharing policy exceeds the scope of its power and is impeding congressional investigations.

The commission’s chief quickly chocked up the accusation as a misunderstanding and pledged that the NRC would comply with lawmakers’ requests for information.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, raised the issue during a hearing intended to gauge progress toward implementation of a host of safety regulations being crafted in response to the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima power plant.

“With out notifying our committee and, I believe, acting outside the NRC’s authority, the commission issued a new policy with substantial hurdles and delays that could even be used to withhold information entirely from the chairs and the ranking members of oversight committees,” Boxer said.

The California Democrat acknowledged that the NRC is an agency independent from the executive branch but charged that, “it is not independent from congressional oversight.”

Boxer said the policy was evidenced earlier this week when NRC personnel sought to restrict her staff’s review of records related to an ongoing probe of safety issues at the San Onofre plant in Southern California. 

Boxer’s staffers were told that they could be physically searched for stolen documents after they had finished reviewing them, she said.

“Let me be clear — no form of agency intimidation or obstruction will be tolerated in this committee’s investigation or its Constitutional oversight responsibilities.,” Boxer said. “Action will be taken if you do not reverse your policy.”

All five NRC commissioners appeared as witnesses at the hearing. But none uttered a word, as Boxer abruptly adjourned the hearing after less than 30 minute so that the panel’s members could rush to the Capitol Building for a major debate over the Senate’s voting rules.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane, however, downplayed the significance of the policy change.

“We’ve heard the concerns of the chairman and I think there’s, in general, a misunderstanding,” Macfarlane told reporters afterward.

She described the new protocol as a revision of past procedures. Among the changes is a requirement that all lawmaker requests for sensitive documents be made through the chairman or ranking minority member of applicable congressional oversight committees.

She denied that the new policies involve the searches of any legislative staffers.

“We would never say such a thing,” she said, adding that the NRC would work with Boxer to ensure she had the materials she was looking for.

The commission also took fire from Republicans on the panel, who criticized the post-Fukushima effort as regulatory overreach.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the influx of new rules is placing unnecessary burdens on an industry responsible for generating of the nation’s electricity.

“Over the past few years, the commission has been developing sweeping new regulations that impose draconian cuts on the industry without producing sufficient benefits,” he said.