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 Levy BoxerPolls show big bounce to Biden ahead of Super Tuesday Sanders poised for big Super Tuesday Establishment Democrats rallying behind Biden 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. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDemocratic senators question Google over decision to release coronavirus location data Why being connected really matters for students On The Money: Trump officials struggle to get relief loans out the door | Dow soars more than 1600 points | Kudlow says officials 'looking at' offering coronavirus bonds 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 BarrassoOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns Lobbying world MORE (R-Wyo.) criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Memo: Political trench warfare colors views on coronavirus GOP embraces big stimulus after years of decrying it Five Latinas who could be Biden's running mate 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.