U.S. nuclear regulators on hot seat over post-Fukushima rules

Among the regulations under consideration is rule that would require reactor operators to upgrade the vents with filters designed to reduce radioactive emissions.
 
The five-member commission is expected to vote on that rule soon. Until then, Macfarlane declined to discuss her position. Nor would she comment on the results of an NRC analysis looking at the costs and benefits of the filters, which each are estimated to carry a $45 million price tag.
 
Regardless of cost, “safety should be the commission’s top priority,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif), who urged the commissioners to approve the rule.
 
The Union of Concerned Scientists also backs the rule, describing the proposal as “a prudent, efficient, cost-effective measure” that would boost public safety in a letter sent this month to the NRC.
 
Congressional Republicans and industry groups, including the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), oppose the measure, saying it is unnecessary. NEI has proposed taking a case-by-case approach to determine whether the filters should be required.
 
At Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said the expense of regulations on the nuclear plants must be factored into the rulemaking decisions.
 
“We need to ensure that any additional that any additional regulatory costs are justified by real safety benefits,” Whitfield said.
 
Other Republicans on the panel urged the NRC to conduct a review of differences between the American and Japanese approaches to nuclear safety. The review would look for gaps in U.S. safety as the commission looks to revamp its approach in light of Fukushima.
 
Rep. Joe Barton (D-TX) is among more than 20 lawmakers pushing the review. He chastised the commission for not responding to the calls.
 
“I don’t see how you can decide what to do going forward if you really don’t do a thorough review of the two regulatory systems,” Barton said.
 
The commission appeared divided on the issue. Macfarlane said she was satisfied with the information already gathered about Japan’s system. NRC Commissioner Kristine L. Svinicki spoke more favorably about the plan.
 
The Union of Concerned Scientists has said that such a study would serve to further delay much-needed safety improvements.
 
But Republicans pointed to reports that the commission is considering as many as 40 additional measures recommended by the taskforce, saying a flurry of new rules thrust on top of a litany of regulatory deadlines for rules already on the books would take the industry away from its core mission.
 
Macfarlane said the commission is taking those concerns seriously.
 
“The NRC is considering the cumulative effects of regulation, rulemaking initiatives stemming from Fukushima lessons-learned activities,” she testified.
 
Beyond the Fukushima-sparked reviews, Macfarlane said the commission is still weighing a proposal from a California utility to restart operations at the long-troubled San Onofre nuclear plant.  
 
The facility has been out of commission for more than a year, after problems were found with the plants steam generators.  Southern California Edison has requested permission to restart operations, prompting concern from several lawmakers.
 
Earlier in the week, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) urged caution on the decision. Noting the plant’s proximity to a fault line and that some 8 million people live within 50 miles of the reactor, Boxer said she doubted a new plant would be permitted at the locations.
 
The operators would have “as much chance of getting a plant there, as putting it on the moon,” she said.
 
Waxman echoed Boxer’s concerns about San Onofre on Thursday, and pressed the commission to consider the potential dangers closely.
 
Macfarlane said the commission was still evaluating the issue, but that no plant would be allowed to operate until all safety concerns were satisfied.